Life of Adam Smith
by John Rae
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When the Wealth of Nations came out in 1776 the author described himself on the title-page as LL.D. and F.R.S., late Professor of Moral Philosophy in Glasgow University, but he wants here on the Theory nothing but plain Adam Smith, his mind being at this period apparently averse to making use of his degree even on public and formal occasions, as it always was to using it in private life. He described himself on his visiting cards as "Mr. Adam Smith," he was known in the inner circle of his personal friends as Mr. Smith, and when Dugald Stewart was found fault with by certain critics for speaking of him so in his memoirs, he replied that he never heard Smith called anything else.

But while Smith was superintending the republication of his first book, he was at the same time using his opportunities in London to read up at the British Museum, then newly established, or elsewhere, for his second and greater, of which he had laid the keel in France. One of the subjects which he was engaged in studying at that time was colonial administration. He seems to have been discussing the subject with Lord Shelburne, who was now Secretary of State, and he gives that statesman the results of his further investigations into at least one branch of the subject in the following letter, written in the first instance, like so many others of Smith's extant letters, to do a service to a friend. He wished to interest Lord Shelburne in the claims of a Scotch friend, Alexander Dalrymple, for the command of the exploring expedition which it was then in contemplation to send to the South Sea, and which was eventually committed to Captain Wallis. This Alexander Dalrymple was afterwards the well-known Hydrographer to the Admiralty and the East India Company, to whom the progress of geographical knowledge lies under deep obligations. He was one of the numerous younger brothers of Lord Hailes, the Scotch judge and historian, and having returned in 1765 from thirteen years' work in the East India Company's service, had devoted himself since then to the study of discoveries in the South Sea, and arrived at a confident belief in the existence of a great undiscovered continent in that quarter. Lord Shelburne would have given him the command of this expedition had not Captain Wallis been already engaged, and next year he was actually offered, and had he been granted naval rank, which he thought essential for maintaining discipline on board ship, he would have undertaken command of the more memorable expedition to observe the transit of Venus, which made Captain Cook the most famous explorer of his age.

The following is Smith's letter:—

MY LORD—I send you enclosed Quiros's memorial, presented to Philip the Second after his return from his voyage, translated from the Spanish in which it is published in Purchass. The voyage itself is long, obscure, and difficult to be understood, except by those who are particularly acquainted with the geography and navigation of those countries, and upon looking over a great number of Dalrymple's papers I imagined this was what you would like best to see. He is besides just finishing a geographical account of all the discoveries that have yet been made in the South Seas from the west coast of America to Tasman's discoveries. If your lordship will give him leave, he would be glad to read this to you himself, and show you on his map the geographical ascertainment of the situation of each island. I have seen it; it is extremely short; not much longer than this memorial of Quiros. Whether this may be convenient for your lordship I know not; whether this continent exists or not may perhaps be uncertain; but supposing it does exist, I am very certain you never will find a man fitter for discovering it, or more determined to hazard everything in order to discover it. The terms that he would ask are, first, the absolute command of the ship, with the naming of all the officers, in order that he may have people who both have confidence in him and in whom he has confidence; and secondly, that in case he should lose his ship by the common course of accidents before he gets into the South Sea, that the Government will undertake to give him another. These are all the terms he would insist upon. The ship properest for such an expedition, he says, would be an old fifty-gun ship without her guns. He does not, however, insist upon this, as a sine qua non, but will go in any ship from an hundred to a thousand tons. He wishes to have but one ship with a good many boats. Most expeditions of this kind have miscarried from one ship's being obliged to wait for the other, or losing time in looking out for the other.

Within these two days I have looked over everything I can find relating to the Roman Colonys. I have not yet found anything of much consequence. They were governed upon the model of the Republic: had two consuls called duumviri; a senate called decuriones or collegium decurionum, and other magistrates similar to those of the Republic. The colonists lost their right of voting or of being elected to any magistracy in the Roman comitia. In this respect they were inferior to many municipia. They retained, however, all the other privileges of Roman citizens. They seem to have been very independent. Of thirty colonies of whom the Romans demanded troops in the second Carthaginian war, twelve refused to obey. They frequently rebelled and joined the enemies of the Republic; being in some measure little independent republics, they naturally followed the interests which their peculiar situation pointed out to them.—I have the honour to be, with the highest regard, my lord, your lordship's most obedient humble servant,


Tuesday, 12th February 1767.[198]

The problem of colonial rights and responsibilities had just come rapidly to the forefront of public questions in England. The abandonment of North America by the French in 1763 had given a new importance to the plantations, and seemed to develop at the same time a stronger disposition to assert colonial rights on the one side of the Atlantic, and to interfere with them on the other. The Stamp Act of 1765 had already begun the struggle against imperial taxation which Charles Townshend's tea duty, imposed a few months after this letter was written, was to precipitate into rebellion. There was therefore very good reason why statesmen like Lord Shelburne should be studying the relations of dependencies to mother countries, and turning their attention to earlier colonial experiments such as those of ancient Rome. It will be observed that Smith came in the Wealth of Nations to modify somewhat the view he expresses in this letter of the independence of the Roman colonies, and explains that the reason they were less prosperous than the Greek colonies was because they were not, like the latter, independent, and were "not always at liberty to manage their own affairs in the way that they judged most suitable to their own interest."[199]

Smith's absent-minded habit, while it seems from various accounts to have been lessened by his travels abroad, was not entirely removed by them, for on the 11th of February 1767 Lady Mary Coke writes her sister that Lady George Lennox and Sir Gilbert Elliot had happened to meet while visiting her, and had talked of "Mr. Smith, the gentleman that went abroad with the Duke of Buccleugh," saying many things in his praise, but adding that he was the most absent man they ever knew. Sir Gilbert mentioned that Mr. Damer (probably Mr. John Damer, Lord Milton's son) had paid Smith a visit a few mornings before as he was sitting down to breakfast, and falling into discourse Smith took a piece of bread and butter, and after rolling it round and round put it into the teapot and poured the water upon it. Shortly after he poured out a cup, and on tasting it declared it was the worst tea he had ever met with. "I have not the least doubt of it," said Mr. Damer, "for you have made it of bread and butter instead of tea."[200]

The Duke of Buccleugh was married in London on the 3rd of May 1767 to Lady Betsy, only daughter of the Duke of Montagu, and Smith probably returned to Scotland immediately after that event. For in writing Hume from Kirkcaldy on the 9th of June 1767, he mentions having now been settled down to his work for about a month. Another circumstance confirms this inference. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London on the 21st of May 1767, but was not admitted till the 27th of May 1773, and that seems to imply that he had left London before the former date, and never returned to it again till shortly before the latter one.


[195] Burton's Life of Hume, ii. 392.

[196] Ibid.

[197] New York Evening Post. Original in possession of Mr. David A. Wells of Norwich, U.S.A.

[198] Lansdowne MSS.

[199] Wealth of Nations, Book IV. chap. vii.

[200] Lady Mary Coke's Journal, i. 141.



1767-1773. Aet. 44-50

When Smith left Glasgow his mother and cousin went back again to Kirkcaldy, and he now joined them and remained with them there for the next eleven years. Hume, who thought the country an unsuitable place for a man of letters, used every endeavour to persuade him to remove to Edinburgh, but without success. The gaiety and fulness of city life were evidently much less to him than they were to Hume, and he must have found what sufficed him in the little town of his birth. He had his work, he had his mother, he had his books, he had his daily walks in the sea breeze, and he had Edinburgh always in the offing as a place of occasional resort. He is said to have taken much real pleasure, like Shakespeare at Stratford, in mingling again with the simple old folk who were about him in his youth, and he had a few neighbours whose pursuits corresponded more nearly with his own. James Oswald, indeed, was now struck down with illness—"terrible distress" is Smith's expression—and he died in the second year after Smith's return to Scotland. Oswald spent some months in Kirkcaldy, however, in the fall of 1767, and probably again in 1768. One of Smith's other literary neighbours, whom he saw much of during this eleven years' residence in Fife, was Robert Beatson, author of the Political Index and other works, to whom there will be occasion to refer again later on. His chief resource, however, throughout this period was his work, which engaged his mind late and early till it told hard, as we shall presently see, on his health.

After being established in Kirkcaldy for some weeks Smith wrote Hume that he was immersed in study, which was the only business he had, that his sole amusements were long solitary walks by the seaside (which, with a man of his gift or infirmity of abstraction, would only be protractions of the study that preoccupied him), and that he never was happier or more contented in all his life. The immediate object of this letter, as so usual with Smith, was to serve a friend—a motive which never failed to overcome his aversion to writing. A French friend—"the best and most agreeable friend I had in France," says Smith—was then in London, and Smith wishes Hume, who was now Under Secretary of State, to show him some attentions during his residence there. This friend was Count de Sarsfield, a gentleman of Irish extraction, an associate of Turgot and the other men of letters in Paris, and a man who added to almost universal knowledge a special predilection for economics, and indeed wrote a number of essays on economic questions, though he never published any of them. He seems to have really been, as Smith indicates, the perfection of an agreeable companion. John Adams, the second President of the United States, when envoy for that country in Paris, was very intimate with him, and says that Sarsfield was the happiest man he knew, for he led the life of a peripatetic philosopher. "Observation and reflection are all his business, and his dinner and his friend all his pleasure. If a man were born for himself alone, I would take him for a model."[201] He was "the greatest rider of hobby-horses" in all President Adams's acquaintance, and some of his hobbies were for the most serious studies. He published a work in metaphysics, and wrote essays against serfdom and slavery, and on a number of other subjects, which were found in MS. among President Adams's papers. Yet he was a problem—and not a very soluble one—to the worthy President, for he laid a weight on the merest trifles of ceremony or etiquette which seemed difficult to reconcile with his devotion to profound and learned studies. He visited Adams at Washington during his presidency, and used constantly to lecture the President on his little omissions. After any entertainment Sarsfield would say, writes Adams, "that I should have placed the Ambassador of France at my right hand and the Minister of Spain at my left, and have arranged the other principal personages; and when I rose from the table I should have said, Messieurs, voudrez vous, etc., or Monsieur or Duc voudrez vous, etc.... How is it possible to reconcile these trifling contemplations of a master of the ceremonies with the vast knowledge of arts, sciences, history, government, etc., possessed by this nobleman?"[202] Sarsfield kept a journal about all the people he met with, from which Adams makes some interesting quotations, and which, if extant, might be expected to add to our information regarding Smith. Having said so much of Smith's "best and most agreeable friend in France," I will now give the letter:—

KIRKALDY, 7th June 1767.

MY DEAREST FRIEND—The Principal design of this Letter is to Recommend to your particular attention the Count de Sarsfield, the best and most agreeable friend I had in France. Introduce him, if you find it proper, to all the friends of yr. absent friend, to Oswald and to Elliot in particular. I cannot express to you how anxious I am that his stay in London should be rendered agreeable to him. You know him, and must know what a plain, worthy, honourable man he is. I enclose a letter for him, which you may either send to him, or rather, if the weighty affairs of State will permit it, deliver it to him yourself. The letter to Dr. Morton[203] you may send by the Penny Post.

My Business here is study, in which I have been very deeply engaged for about a month past. My amusements are long solitary walks by the seaside. You may judge how I spend my time. I feel myself, however, extremely happy, comfortable, and contented. I never was perhaps more so in all my life.

You will give me great comfort by writing to me now and then, and by letting me know what is passing among my friends at London. Remember me to them all, particularly to Mr. Adams's family and to Mrs. Montagu.[204]

What has become of Rousseau? Has he gone abroad because he cannot contrive to get himself sufficiently persecuted in Great Britain?

What is the meaning of the bargain that your ministry have made with the India Company? They have not, I see, prolonged their charter, which is a good circumstance.[205]

The rest of the sheet is torn.

Hume replies on the 13th that Sarsfield was a very good friend of his own, whom he had always great pleasure in meeting, as he was a man of merit; but that he did not introduce him, as Smith desired, to Sir Gilbert Elliot, because "this gentleman's reserve and indolence would make him neglect the acquaintance"; nor to Oswald, because he found his intimacy with Oswald, which had lasted more than a quarter of a century, was broken for ever. He goes on to describe his quarrel with Oswald's brother the bishop; and concludes: "If I were sure, dear Smith, that you and I should not some day quarrel in some such manner, I should tell you that I am yours affectionately and sincerely."[206] Count de Sarsfield seems to have gone on to Scotland to pay Smith a visit, for on the 14th of July Hume writes Smith, enclosing a packet, which he desires to be delivered to the Count.

Smith did not reply to either of these letters till the 13th of September, when he writes from Dalkeith House, where he has gone for the home-coming of the Duke and Duchess of Buccleugh. After expressing his mind in the plainest terms about the bishop with whom Hume had the tussle—"He is a brute and a beast," says Smith—he goes on to bespeak Hume's favour for a young cousin of his who happened to be living in the same house with Hume in London, Captain David Skene, afterwards of Pitlour, who was in 1787 made inspector of military roads in Scotland.

Be so good (he says) as convey the enclosed letter to the Count de Sarsfield. I have been much in the wrong for having delayed so long to write both to him and you.

There is a very amiable, modest, brave, worthy young gentleman who lives in the same house with you. His name is David Skeene. He and I are sisters' sons, but my regard for him is much more founded on his personal qualities than upon the relations in which he stands to me. He acted lately in a very gallant manner in America, of which he never acquainted me himself, and of which I came to the knowledge only within these few days. If you can be of any service to him you could not possibly do a more obliging thing to me.

The Duke and Dutchess of Buccleugh have been here now for almost a fortnight. They begin to open their house on Monday next, and, I flatter myself, will both be very agreeable to the People of this country. I am not sure that I have ever seen a more agreeable woman than the Dutchess. I am sorry that you are not here, because I am sure you would be perfectly in love with her. I shall probably be here some weeks. I could wish, however, that both you and the Count de Sarsfield would direct for me as usual at Kirkaldy. I should be glad to know the true history of Rousseau before and since he left England. You may perfectly depend upon my never quoting you to any living soul upon that subject.—I ever am, dear sir, most faithfully yours,


The Duke of Buccleugh had never been at Dalkeith since his infancy—if indeed he had been even then, for Dr. Carlyle's words in describing this celebration are, "where his grace had never been before"—because his stepfather, Charles Townshend, was afraid he might grow up too Scotch in accent and feeling; and his home-coming now, with his young and beautiful bride, excited the liveliest interest and expectation, not only on the Buccleugh estates, but over the whole lowlands of Scotland, from the Forth to the Solway. The day originally fixed for the celebration was the Duke's birthday, the 13th of September, the very day Smith wrote Hume; but the event had to be postponed in consequence of the sudden death of Townshend, from an attack of putrid fever, between the day of the Duke's arrival at Dalkeith and the anniversary of his birth. It came off, however, two or three weeks later. An entertainment was given to about fifty ladies and gentlemen of the neighbourhood; but Dr. Carlyle, who was present, and wrote indeed an ode for the occasion, says that though the fare was sumptuous, the company was formal and dull, because the guests were all strangers to their host and hostess except Adam Smith, and Adam Smith, says Carlyle, "was but ill qualified to promote the jollity of a birthday." "Had it not been for Alexander Macmillan, W.S., and myself," he proceeds, "the meeting would have been very dull, and might have been dissolved without even drinking the health of the day.... Smith remained with them (the Duke and Duchess) for two months, and then returned to Kirkcaldy to his mother and his studies. I have often thought since that if they had brought down a man of more address than he was, how much sooner their first appearance might have been."[208]

The ice, which Smith is thus blamed for not being able to break on this first meeting of his pupil with his Scotch neighbours, was not long in melting naturally away under the warmth of the Duke's own kindness of heart. He almost settled among them, for on Townshend's death he gave up the idea on which that statesman had set his heart, and which was one of his reasons for committing the training of the young Duke to the care of a political philosopher,—the idea of going into politics as an active career; and he lived largely on his Scotch estates; becoming a father to his numerous tenantry, and a powerful and enlightened promoter of all sound agricultural improvement. Dr. Carlyle says the family were always kind to their tenants, but Duke Henry "surpassed them all, as much in justice and humanity as he did in superiority of understanding and good sense." Without claiming for Smith's teaching what must in any case have been largely the result of a fine natural character, it is certain that no young man could live for three years in daily intimacy with Adam Smith without being powerfully influenced by that deep love of justice and humanity which animated Smith beyond his fellows, and ran as warmly through his conversation in private life as we see it still runs through his published writings. Smith was always vigorous and weighty in his denunciation of wrong, and so impatient of anything in the nature of indifference or palliation towards it, that he could scarce feel at ease in the presence of the palliator. "We can breathe more freely now," he once said when a person of that sort had just left the company; "that man has no indignation in him."[209]

Smith remained the mentor of his pupil all his life. At "Dalkeith, which all the virtues love," he was always a most honoured guest, and Dugald Stewart says he always spoke with much satisfaction and gratitude of his relations with the family of Buccleugh. Several of the traditional anecdotes of Smith's absence of mind are localised at Dalkeith House. Lord Brougham, for example, has preserved a story of Smith breaking out at dinner into a strong condemnation of the public conduct of some leading statesman of the day, then suddenly stopping short on perceiving that statesman's nearest relation on the opposite side of the table, and presently losing self-recollection again and muttering to himself, "Deil care, deil care, it's all true." Or there is the less pointed story told by Archdeacon Sinclair of another occasion when Smith was dining at Dalkeith, and two sons of Lord Dorchester were of the company. The conversation all turned on Lord Dorchester's estates and Lord Dorchester's affairs, and at last Smith interposed and said, "Pray, who is Lord Dorchester? I have never heard so much of him before." The former anecdote shows at once that Smith was in the habit of speaking his mind with considerable plainness, and that he shrank at the same time from everything like personal discourtesy; and the latter, like other stories of his absence of mind, is hardly worth repeating, except for showing that he continued to possess a redeeming infirmity.

From Dalkeith Smith returns to Kirkcaldy and his work. We find him in 1768 in correspondence with the Duke's law-agent, Mr. A. Campbell, W.S., and with Sir James Johnstone of Westerhall, about some investigation, apparently of no public importance, into the genealogy of the Scotts, in connection with which he first got Campbell to make a search in the charter-room of Dalkeith for ancient papers connected with the Scotts of Thirlestane, and then wanted to know the explanation Sir James Johnstone had given of Scott of Davington's claim as heir of Rennaldburn upon the Duke of Buccleugh.[210] It shows Smith, however, taking an interest, as if he were entitled to do so, in the business affairs of the Duke. We find him too in correspondence with Lord Hailes on historical points of some consequence to the economic inquiries he was now busy upon. Lord Hailes was one of the precursors of sound historical investigation in this country, and to Smith, with whom he was long intimate, he afterwards paid the curious compliment of translating his letter to Strahan on the death of Hume into Latin.

Of Smith's correspondence with Hailes only two letters have been preserved. The first is as follows:—

KIRKALDY, 5th March 1769.

MY LORD—I should now be extremely obliged to your Lordship if you would send me the papers you mentioned upon the prices of provisions in former times. In order that the conveyance may be perfectly secure, if your Lordship will give me leave I shall send my own servant sometime this week to receive them at your Lordship's house at Edinburgh. I have not been able to get the papers in the cause of Lord Galloway and Lord Morton. If your Lordship is possessed of them it would likewise be a great obligation if you would send me them. I shall return both as soon as possible. If your Lordship will give me leave I shall transcribe the manuscript papers; this, however, entirely depends upon your Lordship.

Since the last time I had the honour of writing to your Lordship I have read over with more care than before the Acts of James I., and compared them with your Lordship's remarks. From this last I have received both much pleasure and much instruction. Your Lordship's remarks will, I plainly see, be of much more use to me than, I am afraid, mine will be to you. I have read law entirely with a view to form some general notion of the great outlines of the plan according to which justice has been administered in different ages and nations; and I have entered very little into the detail of particulars of which I see your Lordship is very much master. Your Lordship's particular facts will be of great use to correct my general views; but the latter, I fear, will always be too vague and superficial to be of much use to your Lordship.

I have nothing to add to what your Lordship has observed upon the Acts of James I. They are framed in general in a much ruder and more inaccurate manner than either the English statutes or French ordinances of the same period; and Scotland seems to have been, even during this vigorous reign, as our historians represent it, in greater disorder than either France or England had been from the time of the Danish and Norwegian incursions. The 5, 24, 56, and 85 statutes seem all to attempt a remedy to one and the same abuse. Travelling, from the disorders of the country, must have been extremely dangerous, and consequently very rare. Few people therefore would propose to live by entertaining travellers, and consequently there would be few or no inns. Travellers would be obliged to have recourse to the hospitality of private families in the same manner as in all other barbarous countries; and being in this situation real objects of compassion, private families would think themselves obliged to receive them even though this hospitality was extremely oppressive. Strangers, says Homer, are sacred persons, and under the protection of Jupiter, but no wise man would ever choose to send for a stranger unless he was a bard or a soothsayer. The danger too of travelling either alone or with few attendants made all men of consequence carry along with them a numerous suite of retainers, which rendered this hospitality still more oppressive. Hence the orders to build hostellaries in 24 and 85; and as many people had chosen to follow the old fashion and to live rather at the expense of other people than at their own, hence the complaint of the keepers of the hostellaries and the order thereupon in Act 85.

I cannot conclude this letter, though already too long, without expressing to your Lordship my concern, and still more my indignation, at what has lately passed both at London and at Edinburgh. I have often thought that the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom very much resembled a jury. The law lords generally take upon them to sum up the evidence and to explain the law to the other peers, who generally follow their opinion implicitly. Of the two law lords who upon this occasion instructed them, the one has always run after the applause of the mob; the other, by far the most intelligent, has always shown the greatest dread of popular odium, which, however, he has not been able to avoid. His inclinations also have always been suspected to favour one of the parties. He has upon this occasion, I suspect, followed rather his fears and his inclinations than his judgment. I could say a great deal more upon this subject to your Lordship, but I am afraid I have already said too much. I would rather, for my own part, have the solid reputation of your most respectable president, though exposed to the insults of a brutal mob, than all the vain and flimsy applause that has ever yet been bestowed upon either or both the other two.—I have the honour to be, with the highest esteem and regard, my Lord, your Lordship's most obliged and obedient servant,


A week later Smith wrote Lord Hailes another letter, "giving," says Lord Brougham, "what is evidently the beginning of his speculations on the price of silver," but the letter seems to be now lost, and Lord Brougham quotes from it only the following sentences on the Douglas cause. "If the rejoicings which I read of in the public papers in different places on account of the Douglas cause, had no more foundation than those which were said to have been in this place, there has been very little joy upon the occasion. There was here no sort of rejoicing of any kind, unless four schoolboys having set up three candles upon the trone by way of an illumination, is to be considered as such."[212]

The first of these letters was written almost immediately after Smith heard of the decision of the House of Lords in the famous Douglas case. The news of the decision only reached Edinburgh on the 2nd of March, and was received with such popular enthusiasm that the whole city was illuminated. Smith walking by the shore at Kirkcaldy would have seen the bonfires blazing on Salisbury Crags, and he seems to have heard before writing that the house of the Lord President of the Court of Session, who was opposed to the Douglas claim, was attacked by the mob, and the President himself insulted next morning in the street on his way to Court. No civil lawsuit ever excited so much popular interest or feeling. The question, it will be remembered, was whether Mr. Douglas, who had been served heir to the estates of the late Duke of Douglas, was really the son of the Duke's sister, Lady Jane, by her husband, Sir John Stewart of Grandtully, whom she had secretly married abroad when she was already fifty years old, or whether he was an impostor, the son of a Frenchwoman, whom Lady Jane had brought up as her own son with a view to the inheritance of those estates. Everybody in Scotland was for the time either a Douglas or a Hamilton, and the sentimental elements in the case had enlisted popular sympathy strongly on the Douglas side. Smith, as will be seen from those letters, was quite as strong and even impassioned a partisan on the unpopular and losing side, and Lord Hailes having been one of the judges who voted with the Lord President for the decision against Mr. Douglas which the House of Lords now reversed, he feels he can give free vent to his disappointment. Brougham, in publishing the letters, calls the opinion Smith gives not only "very strong" but "very rash," and his impeachment of the impartiality of the two great English judges—Lord Camden and Lord Mansfield—cannot seem defensible. But David Hume, though a Tory and an Under Secretary of State, is not a whit less sparing in his denunciation of those two law lords and in his contempt for the general body of the peers than Smith. "To one who understands the case as I do," he writes to Dr. Blair, "nothing could appear more scandalous than the pleading of the two law lords. Such curious misrepresentation, such impudent assertions, such groundless imputations, never came from that place; but they were good enough for the audience, who, bating their quality, are most of them little better than their brothers the Wilkites of the streets." Hume, having lost his place with a change of ministry, returned to Edinburgh for good in August 1769, and presently wrote Smith inviting him over:—

JAMES'S COURT, 20th August 1769.

DEAR SMITH—I am glad to have come within sight of you, and to have a view of Kirkaldy from my windows, but as I wish also to be within speaking terms of you, I wish we could concert measures for that purpose. I am miserably sick at sea, and regard with horror and a kind of hydrophobia the great gulf that lies between us. I am also tired of travelling as much as you ought naturally to be of staying at home. I therefore propose to you to come hither and pass some days with me in this solitude. I want to know what you have been doing, and purpose to exact a rigorous account of the method in which you have employed yourself during your retreat. I am positive you are in the wrong in many of your speculations, especially when you have the misfortune to differ from me. All these are reasons for our meeting, and I wish you would make me some reasonable proposal for that purpose. There is no habitation on the island of Inchkeith, otherwise I should challenge you to meet me on that spot, and neither of us ever to leave the place till we were fully agreed on all points of controversy. I expect General Conway here to-morrow, whom I shall attend to Roseneath, and I shall remain there a few days. On my return I expect to find a letter from you containing a bold acceptance of this defiance. I am, dear Smith, yours sincerely.[213]

Smith seems to have made such progress with his work in the two years of what Hume here calls his retreat at Kirkcaldy that in the beginning of 1770 there was some word of his going up with it to London for publication. For on the 6th of February Hume again writes him: "What is the meaning of this, dear Smith, which we hear, that you are not to be here above a day or two on your passage to London? How can you so much as entertain a thought of publishing a book full of reason, sense, and learning to those wicked abandoned madmen?"[214]

He had probably completed his first draft of the work from beginning to end, but he kept constantly amplifying and altering parts of it for six years more. He did not go to London in 1770, if he ever contemplated doing so, but he came to Edinburgh and received the freedom of the city in June. He seems to have received this honour for the merits of the Duke of Buccleugh rather than for his own. For the entry in the minutes of the Council of 6th June 1770 runs thus:

"Appoint the Dean of Guild and his Council to admit and receive their Graces the Duke of Buccleugh and the Duke of Montagu in the most ample form, for good services done by them and their noble ancestors to the kingdome. And also Adam Smith, LL.D., and the Reverend Mr. John Hallam to be Burgesses and Gild Brethren of this city in the most ample form.

(Signed) JAMES STUART, Provost."

The Duke of Montagu was the Duke of Buccleugh's father-in-law, and the Rev. Mr. John Hallam—afterwards Dean of Windsor, and father of Henry Hallam, the historian—was the Duke's tutor at Eton, as Adam Smith was his tutor abroad. The freedom was therefore given to the Duke of Buccleugh and party. Smith's burgess-ticket is one of the few relics of him still extant; it is possessed by Professor Cunningham of Belfast.

Smith promised Hume a visit about Christmas 1771, but the visit was postponed in consequence of the illness of Hume's sister, and on the 28th of January he received the following letter, in reply apparently to a request for the address of the Comtesse de Boufflers in Paris:—

EDINBURGH, 28th January 1772.

DEAR SMITH—I should certainly before this time have challenged the Performance of your Promise of being with me about Christmas had it not been for the misfortunes of my family. Last month my sister fell dangerously ill of a fever, and though the fever be now gone, she is still so weak and low, and recovers so slowly, that I was afraid it would be but a melancholy house to invite you to. However, I expect that time will reinstate her in her former health, in which case I shall look for your company. I shall not take any excuse from your own state of health, which I suppose only a subterfuge invented by indolence and love of solitude. Indeed, my dear Smith, if you continue to hearken to complaints of this nature, you will cut yourself out entirely from human society, to the great loss of both parties.

The Lady's Direction is M^e la Comtesse de B., Douaniere au Temple. She has a daughter-in-law, which makes it requisite to distinguish her.—Yours sincerely,


P.S.—I have not yet read Orlando Inamorato. I am now in a course of reading the Italian historians, and am confirmed in my former opinion that that language has not produced one author who knew how to write elegant correct prose though it contains several excellent poets. You say nothing to me of your own work.[215]

Smith seems to have perhaps sent him Orlando Inamorato, or at any rate to have been previously in communication, either by letter or conversation, on the subject, for the Italian poets were favourite reading of his. But a more important point in the letter is the indication it affords that Smith's labours and solitude were beginning to tell on the state of his health. Indeed, poor health had now become one of the chief causes of his delay in finishing his work, and it continued to go from bad to worse. He writes his friend Pulteney in September that his book would have been ready for the press by the first of that winter if it were not for the interruptions caused by bad health, "arising," he says, "from want of amusement and from thinking too much upon one thing," together with other interruptions of an equally anxious nature, occasioned by his endeavours to extricate some of his personal friends from the difficulties in which they were involved by the commercial crisis of that time.

KIRKALDY, 5th September 1772.

MY DEAR PULTENEY—I have received your most friendly letter in due course, and I have delayed a great deal too long to answer it. Though I have had no concern myself in the Public calamities, some of the friends in whom I interest myself the most have been deeply concerned in them; and my attention has been a good deal occupied about the most proper method of extricating them.

In the Book which I am now preparing for the press I have treated fully and distinctly of every part of the subject which you have recommended to me; and I intended to send you some extracts from it; but upon looking them over I find that they are too much interwoven with other parts of the work to be easily separated from it. I have the same opinion of Sir James Stewart's book that you have. Without once mentioning it, I flatter myself that any fallacious principle in it will meet with a clear and distinct confutation in mine.[216]

I think myself very much honoured and obliged to you for having mentioned me to the E. India Directors as a person who would be of use to them. You have acted in your old way of doing your friends a good office behind their backs, pretty much as other people do them a bad one. There is no labour of any kind which you can impose upon me which I will not readily undertake. By what Mr. Stewart and Mr. Ferguson hinted to me concerning your notice of the proper remedy for the disorders of the coin in Bengal, I believe our opinions upon that subject are perfectly the same.

My book would have been ready for the press by the beginning of this winter, but interruptions occasioned partly by bad health, arising from want of amusement and from thinking too much upon one thing, and partly by the avocations above mentioned, will oblige me to retard its publication for a few months longer.—I ever am, my dearest Pulteney, most faithfully and affectionately your obliged servant,


To WILLIAM PULTENEY Esq., Member of Parliament, BATH HOUSE, LONDON.[217]

The public calamities to which Smith refers in the opening paragraph of his letter are the bankruptcies of the severe commercial crisis of that year, and the friends he was so much occupied in extricating from its results were, I think it most likely, the family of Buccleugh. The crash was especially disastrous in Scotland; only three private banks in Edinburgh out of thirty survived it, and a large joint-stock bank, Douglas Heron and Company, started only three years before, for the public-spirited purpose of promoting improvements, particularly improvements of land, now seemed to shake all commercial Scotland with its fall. In this company the Duke of Buccleugh was one of the largest shareholders, and, liability being unlimited, it was impossible to foresee how much of its L800,000 of liabilities his Grace might be eventually called upon to pay. The suggestion that Smith was much consulted by the Duke and his advisers about this grave business is to some extent confirmed by the familiarity which he shows with the whole circumstances of this bank at the time of its failure in the second chapter of the second book of the Wealth of Nations.

The situation for which Pulteney had recommended him to the Court of Directors of the East India Company was, no doubt, a place as member of the Special Commission of Supervision which they then contemplated establishing. In 1772 the East India Company was in extremities; in July they were nearly a million and a half sterling behind for their next quarter's payments; and they proposed to send out to India a commission of three independent and competent men, with full authority to institute a complete examination into every detail of the administration, and to exercise a certain supervision and control of the whole. Burke had already been offered one of the seats on this commission, but had refused it on finding that Lord Rockingham was unwilling to part with him; and at the time this letter was written two of Smith's own Scotch friends, whose names he happens to mention in the letter—Adam Ferguson and Andrew Stuart, M.P.—were actually candidates for the places, and had apparently been recently seeing Pulteney in London on the subject. Pulteney, who had great influence at the India House, had probably mentioned the names of Smith, Ferguson, and Stuart to the Court of Directors at the same time, and if so, that must have been at least two months before Smith wrote this letter, for Ferguson was in the month of July getting influence brought to bear on the Edinburgh Town Council to secure their permission to retain his professorship in the event of his going to India.[218] Ferguson pushed his candidature vigorously, and went to London repeatedly about it between July and November, but Smith, although he would have accepted the post if he received the offer of it, does not seem to have taken any steps to procure it, and did not even answer Pulteney's letter till September. Stuart's candidature was defeated, Horace Walpole says, by Lord Mansfield, but eventually no appointment was made, because Parliament intervened, and forbade any such commission to be sent out at all.

In sending the letter to the Academy for publication Professor Rogers observes that it is plain the delay in the publication of the Wealth of Nations was due to the negotiations which Mr. Pulteney was evidently making for the purpose of getting Smith appointed to this place. "Had he succeeded," proceeds Mr. Rogers, "it is probable that the Wealth of Nations would never have seen the light; for every one knows that in the first and second books of that work the East India Company is criticised with the greatest severity.... I have no doubt that owing to Pulteney's negotiations it lay unrevised and unaltered during four years in the author's desk."

With all respect, this is a strange remark to fall from an editor of the Wealth of Nations, for the evidences of continuous revision and alteration during those four years are very numerous in the text of the work itself. He made many changes or additions in 1773; for example, the remarks on the price of hides,[219] in the chapter on Rent, were written in February 1773; and those on the decline of sugar-refining in colonies taken from the French, in the chapter on the Colonies,[220] were written in October; while the passage on American wages, in the chapter on Wages, was inserted some time in the same year. The extensive additions in the chapters on the Revenue, occasioned by reading the Memoires concernant les Droits, must have been written after 1774, because Smith probably obtained that book after Turgot became Minister in the middle of that year; his remarks, in the chapter on Colonies, on the effects of recent events on the trade with North America,[221] and his remarks on the Irish revenue in the chapter on Public Debts, were added in 1775.[222] The chapter on the Regulated Companies, in which the East India Company receives most systematic attention, and which did not appear in the first edition of the book, was apparently not written till 1782.[223]

The book therefore did not lie "unrevised and unaltered" in the author's desk from 1772 to 1776; on the contrary, the chief cause of the four years' delay was the revision and alteration to which it was being incessantly subjected during that whole term. The particular Indian appointment for which Pulteney had recommended him could have nothing to do with the delay, inasmuch as the proposed office was suppressed altogether within two months after this letter was written; and even if he entertained expectations of any other sort from the East India Company, there is no reason why he should on that account have withheld his work from publication. The more elaborate criticism of that Company in the chapter on Public Works did not appear in the original edition of the book at all, but the only remarks on Indian administration which did appear in that edition, although they are merely incidental in character, are very strong and decided, and might easily have been omitted, had the author been so minded, to please the Company, without any injury to the general argument with which they are connected.

On the other hand, there exists abundance of evidence that Smith was busy for most of three years after this date, and mainly in London, altering, improving, and adding to the manuscript of the book. New lines of investigation would suggest themselves, new theories to be thought out, and the task would grow day by day by a very simple but unforeseen process of natural accretion. Hume thought it near completion in 1769; but towards the end of 1772, a couple of months after Smith's answer to Pulteney, he gives it most of another year yet for being finished. He writes from his new quarters in St. Andrew Square, asking Smith to break off his studies for a few weeks' relaxation with him in Edinburgh about Christmas, and then to return and finish his work before the following autumn.

ST. ANDREW'S SQUARE, 23rd November 1772.

DEAR SMITH—I should agree to your Reasoning if I could trust your Resolution. Come hither for some weeks about Christmas; dissipate yourself a little; return to Kirkaldy; finish your work before autumn; go to London, print it, return and settle in this town, which suits your studious, independent turn even better than London. Execute this plan faithfully, and I forgive you....

Ferguson has returned fat and fair and in good humour, notwithstanding his disappointment,[224] which I am glad of. He comes over next week to a house in this neighbourhood. Pray come over this winter and join us.—I am, my dear Smith, ever yours,


While Pulteney was suggesting Smith's name for employment under the East India Company, Baron Mure was trying to secure his services as tutor to the Duke of Hamilton, and Lord Stanhope possibly offered him the position of tutor to his lordship's ward, the young Earl of Chesterfield. Baron Mure was one of the guardians of the young Duke of Hamilton (the son of the beautiful Miss Gunning), and had in that capacity had the chief responsibility in raising and carrying on the great Douglas cause. He was a man of great sagacity and weight, whom we have seen in communication with Hume and Oswald on economic subjects; he had long been also on terms of personal intimacy with Smith, and he seems to have been anxious in 1772 to send Smith abroad with the Duke of Hamilton, as he had already been sent abroad with the Duke of Buccleugh. Smith would appear to have been sounded on the subject, and even to have given what was considered a favourable reply, for Andrew Stuart, a fellow-guardian of the Duke along with Mure, writes the latter acknowledging receipt of his letter "intimating"—these are the words—"the practicability of having Mr. Smith," but the Duke's mother (then Duchess of Argyle) and the Duke himself preferred Dr. John Moore, the author of Zelucco, who was the family medical attendant, and was indeed chosen because he could act in that capacity to his very delicate young charge, though he was strictly required to drop the "doctor," and was severely censured by the Duchess for assisting at a surgical operation in Geneva, inasmuch as if it got known that he was a medical man it would be a bar to their reception in the best society.[226] Accordingly Mure was told that it was "the united opinion of all concerned that matters go no further with Mr. Smith."

The circumstance that so wise and practical a head as Baron Mure's should have thought of Smith for this post is at least a proof that the Buccleugh tutorship had been a success, and that Smith was not considered by other men of the world who knew him well as being so unfit for the situation of travelling tutor as some of his friends thought him.

During this period of severe study in Kirkcaldy his fits of absence might be expected to recur occasionally, and Dr. Charles Rogers relates an anecdote of one of them, which may be repeated here, though Dr. Rogers omits mentioning any authority for it; and stories of that kind must naturally be accepted with scruples, because they are so apt to agglomerate round any person noted for the failing they indicate.

According to Dr. Rogers, however, Smith, during his residence in Kirkcaldy, went out one Sunday morning in his dressing-gown to walk in the garden, but once in the garden he went on to the path leading to the turnpike road, and then to the road itself, along which he continued in a condition of reverie till he reached Dunfermline, fifteen miles distant, just as the bells were sounding and the people were proceeding to church. The strange sound of the bells was the first thing that roused the philosopher from the meditation in which he was immersed.[227] The story is very open to criticism, but if correct it points to sleepless nights and an incapacity to get a subject out of the head, due to over-application.

The persistency of his occupation with his book, according to Robert Chambers in his Picture of Scotland, left a mark on the wall of his study which remained there till the room was repainted shortly before that author wrote of it in 1827. Chambers says that it was Smith's habit to compose standing, and to dictate to an amanuensis. He usually stood with his back to the fire, and unconsciously in the process of thought used to make his head vibrate, or rather, rub sidewise against the wall above the chimney-piece. His head being dressed, in the ordinary style of that period, with pomatum, could not fail to make a mark on the wall.

M'Culloch says Smith dictated the Wealth of Nations but did not dictate the Theory of Moral Sentiments. Whether he had any external ground for making this assertion I cannot tell, and, apart from such, the probability would seem to be that if he dictated his lectures in Edinburgh to an amanuensis, as seems probable, as well as his Wealth of Nations, he would have done the same with his Theory. But M'Culloch professes to see internal evidences of this difference of manual method in the different style of the respective works. Moore met M'Culloch one evening at Longman's, and they were discussing writers who were in the habit of dictating as they composed. One of the party said the habit of dictating always bred a diffuse style, and M'Culloch supported this view by the example of Adam Smith, whose Wealth of Nations, he said, was very diffuse because it had been dictated, while his Theory, which was not dictated, was admirable in style. But in reality there is probably more diffuse writing in the Theory than in the Wealth of Nations, which is for the most part packed tightly enough. Another Scotch critic, Archibald Alison the elder, the author of the Essay on Taste, even surpasses M'Culloch in his keenness in detecting the effects of this dictating habit. He says that Smith used to walk up and down the room while he dictated, and that the consequence is that his sentences are nearly all the same length, each containing as much as the amanuensis could write down while the author took a single turn.[228] This is excessive acuteness. Smith's sentences are not by any means all of one length, or all of the same construction. It need only be added that the habit of dictating would in his case arise naturally from his slow and laboured penmanship.

As I have mentioned the house in which the Wealth of Nations was composed, it may be added that it stood in the main street of the town, but its garden ran down to the beach, and that it was only pulled down in 1844, without anybody in the place realising at the moment, though it has been a cause of much regret since, that they were suffering their most interesting association to be destroyed. An engraving of it, however, exists.


[201] Adams's Works, ix. 589.

[202] Adams's Works, iii. 276.

[203] Secretary of the Royal Society. The letter was probably in acknowledgment of the intimation of his election as Fellow.

[204] Mr. Adams is Adam the architect, and Mrs. Montagu is the well-known Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu of Portman Square, whose hospitable house was a rival to any of the most brilliant salons of Paris.

[205] Hume MSS., R.S.E. Library.

[206] Burton's Life of Hume, ii. 390.

[207] Hume MSS., R.S.E. Library.

[208] Carlyle's Autobiography, p. 489.

[209] Sinclair's Life of Sir John Sinclair, i. 37.

[210] Fraser's Scotts of Buccleuch, I. lxxxviii., II. 406.

[211] Brougham's Men of Letters, ii. 219.

[212] Brougham's Men of Letters, ii. 219.

[213] Burton's Life of Hume, ii. 429.

[214] Ibid., ii. 433.

[215] Hume MSS., R.S.E. Library. Partially published by Burton.

[216] Sir James Steuart's Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy was published in 1767.

[217] Published by Professor Thorold Rogers in the Academy of 28th February 1885.

[218] Caldwell Papers, iii. 207.

[219] Wealth of Nations, Book I. chap. xi.

[220] Ibid., Book IV. chap. vii.

[221] Wealth of Nations, Book IV. chap. vii.

[222] Ibid., Book V. chap. iii.

[223] Ibid., Book V. chap. i.

[224] From the suppression of the Indian supervisorship; see p. 255.

[225] Hume MSS., R.S.E. Library.

[226] Caldwell Papers, i. 192.

[227] Rogers' Social Life of Scotland, iii. 181.

[228] Sinclair's Old Times and Distant Places, p. 9.



1773-1776. Aet. 50-53

In the spring of 1773, Smith, having, as he thought, virtually completed the Wealth of Nations, set out with the manuscript for London, to give it perhaps some finishing touches and then place it in the hands of a publisher. But his labours had told so seriously on his health and spirits that he thought it not improbable he might die, and even die suddenly, before the work got through the press, and he wrote Hume a formal letter before he started on his journey, constituting him his literary executor, and giving him directions about the destination of the various unpublished manuscripts that lay in his depositories:—

MY DEAR FRIEND—As I have left the care of all my literary papers to you, I must tell you that except those which I carry along with me, there are none worth the publishing but a fragment of a great work which contains a history of the astronomical systems that were successively in fashion down to the time of Descartes. Whether that might not be published as a fragment of an intended juvenile work I leave entirely to your judgment, tho' I begin to suspect myself that there is more refinement than solidity in some parts of it. This little work you will find in a thin folio paper book in my writing-desk in my book-room. All the other loose paper which you will find either in that desk or within the glass folding-doors of a bureau which stands in my bedroom, together with about eighteen thin paper folio books, which you will likewise find within the same glass folding-doors, I desire may be destroyed without any examination. Unless I die very suddenly, I shall take care that the Papers I carry with me shall be carefully sent to you.—I ever am, my dear friend, most faithfully yours,


EDINBURGH, 16th April 1773.

To DAVID HUME, Esq., 9 St. Andrew's Square, Edinburgh.[229]

Smith went to London shortly after writing this letter, and spent most of the next four years there. We find him there in May 1773, for he is admitted to the Royal Society on the 27th of that month; he is there in September, for Ferguson then writes to him as if he were still there. He is there in February 1774, for Hume writes him in that month, "Pray what accounts are these we hear of Franklyn's conduct?"—a question he would hardly have addressed except to one in a better position for hearing the truth about Franklin than he was himself. He is there in September 1774, for he writes Cullen from town in that month, and speaks of having been for some time in it. He is there in January 1775, for on the 11th Bishop Percy met him at dinner at Sir Joshua Reynolds', along with Johnson, Burke, Gibbon, and others.[230] He is there in February, for a young friend, Patrick Clason, addresses a letter to him during that month to the care of Cadell, the bookseller, in the Strand. He is there in December, for on the 27th Horace Walpole writes the Countess of Ossory that "Adam Smith told us t'other night at Beauclerk's that Major Preston—one of two, but he is not sure which—would have been an excellent commander some years hence if he had seen any service. I said it was a pity that the war had not been put off till the Major should be some years older."[231] He returned to Scotland in April 1776, about a month after his book was issued, but we find him back again in London in January 1777, for his letter to Governor Pownall in that month is dated from Suffolk Street. Whether the first three years of his stay in London was continuous I cannot say, but it would almost appear so from the circumstance that nothing remains to indicate the contrary.

Those three years were spent upon the Wealth of Nations. Much of the book as we know it must have been written in London. When he went up to London he had no idea that any fresh investigations he contemplated instituting there would detain him so long. He wrote Pulteney, as we have seen, even in the previous September that the book would be finished in a few months, and he led not only Hume but Adam Ferguson also to look for its publication in 1773. In a footnote to the fourth edition of his History of Civil Society, published in that year, Ferguson says, "The public will probably soon be furnished (by Mr. Smith, author of the Theory of Moral Sentiments) with a theory of national economy equal to what has ever appeared on any subject of science whatever." But the researches the author now made in London must have been much more important than he expected, and have occasioned extensive alterations and additions, so that Hume, in congratulating him on the eventual appearance of the work in 1776, writes, "It is probably much improved by your last abode in London." Whole chapters seem to have been put through the forge afresh; and on some of them the author has tool-marked the date of his handiwork himself.

A very circumstantial account of Smith's London labours at the book comes from America. Mr. Watson, author of the Annals of Philadelphia, says: "Dr. Franklin once told Dr. Logan that the celebrated Adam Smith when writing his Wealth of Nations was in the habit of bringing chapter after chapter as he composed it to himself, Dr. Price, and others of the literati; then patiently hear their observations and profit by their discussions and criticisms, sometimes submitting to write whole chapters anew, and even to reverse some of his propositions."[232]

Franklin's remark may have itself undergone enlargement before it appeared in print, but though it may have been exaggerated, there seems no ground for rejecting it altogether. Smith became acquainted with Franklin in Edinburgh in 1759, and could not fail to see much of him in London, because some of the most intimate of his own London friends, Sir John Pringle and Strahan, for example, were also among the most intimate friends of Franklin. Then a considerable proportion of the additions, which we know from the text of the Wealth of Nations itself to have been made to the work during this London period, bear on colonial or American experience.[233] And as Smith always obtained a great deal of his information from the conversation of competent men, no one would be more likely than Franklin to be laid under contribution or to be able to contribute something worth learning on such questions. The biographer of Franklin states that his papers which belong to this particular period "contain sets of problems and queries as though jotted down at some meeting of philosophers for particular consideration at home," and then he adds: "A glance at the index of the Wealth of Nations will suffice to show that its author possessed just that kind of knowledge of the American Colonies which Franklin was of all men the best fitted to impart. The allusions to the Colonies may be counted by hundreds; illustrations from their condition and growth occur in nearly every chapter. We may go further and say that the American Colonies constitute the experimental evidence of the essential truth of the book, without which many of its leading positions had been little more than theory."[234] It ought of course to be borne in mind that Smith had been in the constant habit of hearing much about the American Colonies and their affairs during his thirteen years in Glasgow from the intelligent merchants and returned planters of that city.

After coming to London Smith seems to have renewed his acquaintance with Lord Stanhope, who sought Smith's counsel as to a tutor for his ward the Earl of Chesterfield, and appointed Adam Ferguson on Smith's recommendation. The negotiations with Ferguson were conducted through Smith, and some of Ferguson's letters to Smith on the matter still exist, but contain nothing of any interest for the biography of the latter. But in contemplation of Ferguson's going abroad with the Earl of Chesterfield, Hume, ever anxious to have his friend near him, sounds Smith on the possibility of his agreeing to act during Ferguson's absence as his substitute in the Moral Philosophy chair at Edinburgh. Smith, however, was apparently unwilling to undertake that duty. As we have already seen, he was strongly opposed to professorial absenteeism, and in the present case it was associated with unpleasant circumstances. The Town Council, the administrators of the College, refused to sanction Ferguson's absence, and called upon him either to stay at home or to resign his chair. Ferguson merely snapped his fingers, appointed young Dugald Stewart his substitute, and went off on his travels, quietly remarking that fools and knaves were necessary in the world to give other people something to do. Hume's letter is as follows:—

ST. ANDREW'S SQUARE, 13th February 1774.

DEAR SMITH—You are in the wrong for never informing me of your intentions and resolutions, if you have fix'd any. I am now obliged to write to you on a subject without knowing whether the proposal, or rather Hint, which I am to give you be an absurdity or not. The settlement to be made on Ferguson is a very narrow compensation for his class if he must lose it. He wishes to keep it and to serve by a Deputy in his absence. But besides that this scheme will appear invidious and is really scarce admissible, those in the Town Council who aim at filling the vacancy with a friend will strenuously object to it, and he himself cannot think of one who will make a proper substitute. I fancy that the chief difficulty would be removed if you could offer to supply his class either as his substitute or his successor, with a purpose of resigning upon his return. This notion is entirely my own, and shall never be known to Ferguson if it appear to you improper. I shall only say that he deserves this friendly treatment by his friendly conduct of a similar kind towards poor Russell's family.

Pray what strange accounts are these we hear of Franklyn's conduct? I am very slow in believing that he has been guilty in the extreme degree that is pretended, tho' I always knew him to be a very factious man, and Faction next to Fanaticism is of all passions the most destructive of morality. I hear that Wedderburn's treatment of him before the Council was most cruel without being in the least blamable. What a pity![235]

Smith's headquarters in London, to which Hume's letters to him were addressed, was the British Coffee-House in Cockspur Street, a great Scotch resort in last century, kept, as I have said, by a sister of his old Balliol friend, Bishop Douglas, "a woman," according to Henry Mackenzie, "of uncommon talents and the most agreeable conversation." Wedderburn founded a weekly dining club in this house, which Robertson and Carlyle used to frequent when they came to town, and no doubt Smith would do the same, for many of his Scotch friends belonged to it—Dr. William Hunter, John Home, Robert Adam the architect, and Sir Gilbert Elliot. Indeed, though men like Goldsmith, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Garrick, and Richard Cumberland were members, it was predominantly a Scotch club, and both Carlyle and Richard Cumberland say an extremely agreeable one. But during his residence at this period in London Smith was in 1775 admitted to the membership of a much more famous club, the Literary Club of Johnson and Burke and Reynolds at the Turk's Head in Gerrard Street, and he no doubt attended their fortnightly dinners. The only members present on the night of his election were Beauclerk, Gibbon, Sir William Jones, and Sir Joshua Reynolds. Boswell, writing his friend Temple on 28th April 1776, immediately after the Wealth of Nations was published, says, "Smith too is now of our club. It has lost its select merit." But another member of the club, Dean Barnard—husband of the authoress of "Auld Robin Gray"—appreciates his worth better, though he wrote the lines in which his appreciation occurs before the Wealth of Nations appeared, and his words may therefore be taken perhaps to convey the impression made by Smith's conversation. One of the Dean's verses runs—

If I have thoughts and can't express 'em, Gibbon shall teach me how to dress 'em In form select and terse; Jones teach me modesty and Greek, Smith how to think, Burke how to speak, And Beauclerk to converse.

Smith's conversation seems, from all the accounts we have of it, to have been the conversation of a thinker, often lecturing rather than talk, but always instructive and solid. William Playfair, the brother of Professor John Playfair, the mathematician, says, "Those persons who have ever had the pleasure to be in his company may recollect that even in his common conversation the order and method he pursued without the smallest degree of formality or stiffness were beautiful, and gave a sort of pleasure to all who listened to him."[236]

Bennet Langton mentions the "decisive professorial manner" in which he was used to talk, and according to Boswell, Topham Beauclerk conceived a high opinion of Smith's conversation at first, but afterwards lost it, for reasons unreported, though if Beauclerk was himself, as Dean Barnard indicates, the model converser of the club, he would probably grow tired of expository lectures, however excellent and instructive. A criticism of Garrick's is more curious. After listening to Smith one evening, the great player turned to a friend and whispered, "What say you to this? eh, flabby, eh?" but whatever may have been the case that particular evening, flabbiness at least was not a characteristic of Smith's talk. It erred rather in excess of substance. He had Johnson's solidity and weight, without Johnson's force and vivacity. Henry Mackenzie, author of the Man of Feeling, talking of Smith soon after his death with Samuel Rogers, said of him, "With a most retentive memory, his conversation was solid beyond that of any man. I have often told him after half an hour's conversation, 'Sir, you have said enough to make a book.'"[237] His conversation, moreover, was particularly wide in its range. Dugald Stewart says that though Smith seldom started a topic of conversation, there were few topics raised on which he was not found contributing something worth hearing, and Boswell, no very partial witness, admits that his talk evinced "a mind crowded with all manner of subjects." Like Sir Walter Scott, Smith has been unjustly accused of habitually abstaining from conversing on the subjects he had made his own. Boswell tells us that Smith once said to Sir Joshua Reynolds that he made it a rule in company never to talk of what he understood, and he alleges the reason to have been that Smith had bookmaking ever in his mind, and the fear of the plagiarist ever before his eyes. But the fact thus reported by Boswell cannot be accepted exactly as he reports it, and his explanation cannot be accepted at all. Men able to converse on a variety of subjects will naturally prefer to converse on those unconnected with their own shop, because they go into company for diversion from their own shop, but it is a question of company and circumstances. If Smith ever made any such rule as Boswell speaks of, he certainly seems to have honoured it as often by the breach as by the observance, for when his friends brought round the conversation to his special lines of research, he never seems to have failed to give his ideas quite freely, nay, as may be seen from the remark just quoted from Henry Mackenzie, not freely merely but abundantly—as many as would make a book. He does not appear to have been in this respect a grudging giver. I have already quoted his remark on hearing of Blair's borrowing some of his juridical ideas, "There's enough left." When Sir John Sinclair was writing his History of the Revenue Smith offered him the use of everything, either printed or manuscript, in his possession bearing upon the subject. And if it is true that he was discussing his own book chapter by chapter with Franklin, Price, and others, about the very period when this remark to Sir Joshua purports to have been made, it appears most unlikely that he could have thought of setting any churlish watch on his lips in ordinary conversation. But however it be with his disposition to talk about his own pursuits, we know from Dugald Stewart that he was very fond of talking of subjects remote from them, and as Stewart says, he was never more entertaining than when he gave a loose rein to his speculation on subjects off his own line. "Nor do I think," says Stewart, "I shall be accused of going too far when I say that he was scarcely ever known to start a new topic himself, or to appear unprepared upon those topics that were introduced by others. Indeed, his conversation was never more amusing than when he gave a loose rein to his genius upon the very few branches of knowledge of which he only possessed the outlines."[238] One of his defects, according to both Stewart and Carlyle, was his poor penetration into personal character; but he was very fond of drawing the character of any person whose name came up in conversation, and Stewart says his judgments of this kind, though always decided and lively, were generally too systematic to be just, leaning ever, however, to charity's side, and erring by partiality rather than prejudice; while Carlyle completes the description by stating that when any one challenged or disputed his opinion of a character, he would retrace his steps with the greatest ease and nonchalance and contradict every word he had been saying. Carlyle's statement is confirmed by the remarks of certain of Smith's other friends who speak incidentally of the amusing inconsistencies in which he indulged in private conversation. He was fond of starting theories and supporting them, but it is not so easy to explain a man on a theory as to explain some abstract subject on a theory.

His voice seems to have been harsh, his utterance often stammering, and his manner, especially among strangers, often embarrassed, but many writers speak of the remarkable animation of his features as he warmed to his subject, and of the peculiar radiancy of his smile. "His smile of approbation," says Dr. Carlyle, "was captivating." "In the society of those he loved," says Stewart, "his features were often brightened with a smile of inexpressible benignity."

While living in London, Smith, along with Gibbon, attended Dr. William Hunter's lectures on anatomy,[239] as we are told by a writer who was one of Hunter's students at the time, and during that very period he had an opportunity of vindicating the value of the lectures of private teachers of medicine like Hunter against pretensions to monopoly set up at the moment on behalf of the universities. In a long letter written to Cullen in September 1774 Smith defends with great vigour and vivacity the most absolute and unlimited freedom of medical education, treating the University claims as mere expressions of the craft spirit, and recognising none of those exceptional features of medical education which have constrained even the most extreme partisans of economic liberty now to approve of government interference in that matter.

The letter was occasioned by an agitation which had been long gathering strength in Scotch medical circles against the laxity with which certain of the Scotch universities—St. Andrews and Aberdeen in particular—were in the habit of conferring their medical degrees. The candidate was not required either to attend classes or to pass an examination, but got the degree by merely paying the fees and producing a certificate of proficiency from two medical practitioners, into whose qualifications no inquiry was instituted. In London a special class of agent—the broker in Scotch degrees—sprang up to transact the business, and England was being overrun with a horde of Scotch doctors of medicine who hardly knew a vein from an artery, and had created south of the Border a deep prejudice against all Scotch graduates, even those from the unoffending Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. A case seemed to be brought home even to Edinburgh in the year 1771. The offender—one Leeds—had not, indeed, got his degree from Edinburgh without examination, but he showed his competency to be so doubtful in his duties at the London Hospital that the governors made it a condition of the continuance of his services that he should obtain the diploma of the London College of Physicians, and he failed to pass this London examination and was deprived of his post. This case created much sensation both in London and Edinburgh, and when the Duke of Buccleugh was elected an honorary Fellow of the College of Physicians of Edinburgh in 1774, he made that body something like an offer to take up the question of examination for medical degrees in Parliament and try what could be done to remove this reproach from his country. The College of Physicians thereupon drew up a memorial to Government for the Duke of Buccleugh to present, praying for the prohibition of the universities from granting medical degrees, except honorary ones, to any person in absence, or to any person without first undergoing a personal examination into his proficiency, and bringing a certificate of having attended for two years at a university where physic was regularly taught, and of having applied himself to all branches of medical study. They add that they fix on two years not because they think two years enough, but because that was the term adopted by the London College of Physicians, and they suggest the appointment of a royal commission of inquiry if Government is not prepared for immediate action.

The Duke of Buccleugh sent the memorial for the consideration of Adam Smith, and asked him to write to Cullen his views on the subject. Smith thought that it was not very practicable in any event for the public to obtain a satisfactory test of medical efficiency, that it was certainly not practicable if the competition by the private teachers were suppressed, that otherwise the medical examination might become as great a quackery as the medical degree, and that the whole question was a mere squabble between the big quack and the little one. He unfolds his views in the following letter:—

DEAR DOCTOR—I have been very much in the wrong both to you and to the Duke of Buccleugh, to whom I certainly promised to write you in a post or two, for having delayed so long to fulfil my promise. The truth is that some occurrences which interested me a good deal, and which happened here immediately after the Duke's departure, made me forget altogether a business which, I do acknowledge, interested me very little.

In the present state of the Scotch universities I do most sincerely look upon them as, in spite of all their faults, without exception the best seminaries of learning that are to be found anywhere in Europe. They are perhaps, upon the whole, as unexceptionable as any public institutions of that kind, which all contain in their very nature the seeds and causes of negligency and corruption, have ever been or are ever likely to be. That, however, they are still capable of amendment, and even of considerable amendment, I know very well, and a Visitation (that is, a Royal Commission) is, I believe, the only proper means of procuring them this amendment. Before any wise man, however, would apply for the appointment of so arbitrary a tribunal in order to improve what is already, upon the whole, very well, he ought certainly to know with some degree of certainty, first, who are likely to be appointed visitors, and secondly, what plan of reformation those visitors are likely to follow; but in the present multiplicity of pretenders to some share in the prudential management of Scotch affairs, these are two points which, I apprehend, neither you nor I, nor the Solicitor-General nor the Duke of Buccleugh, can possibly know anything about. In the present state of our affairs, therefore, to apply for a Visitation in order to remedy an abuse which is not perhaps of great consequence to the public, would appear to me to be extremely unwise. Hereafter, perhaps, an opportunity may present itself for making such an application with more safety.

With regard to an admonition, or threatening, or any other method of interfering in the affairs of a body corporate which is not perfectly and strictly regular and legal, these are expedients which I am convinced neither his Majesty nor any of his present Ministers would choose to employ either now or at any time hereafter in order to obtain an object even of much greater consequence than this reformation of Scottish degrees.

You propose, I observe, that no person should be admitted to examination for his degrees unless he brought a certificate of his having studied at least two years in some university. Would not such a regulation be oppressive upon all private teachers, such as the Hunters, Hewson, Fordyce, etc.? The scholars of such teachers surely merit whatever honour or advantage a degree can confer much more than the greater part of those who have spent many years in some universities, where the different branches of medical knowledge are either not taught at all, or are taught so superficially that they had as well not be taught at all. When a man has learnt his lesson very well, it surely can be of little importance where or from whom he has learnt it.

The monopoly of medical education which this regulation would establish in favour of universities would, I apprehend, be hurtful to the lasting prosperity of such bodies corporate. Monopolists very seldom make good work, and a lecture which a certain number of students must attend, whether they profit by it or no, is certainly not very likely to be a good one. I have thought a great deal upon this subject, and have inquired very carefully into the constitution and history of several of the principal universities of Europe; I have satisfied myself that the present state of degradation and contempt into which the greater part of these societies have fallen in almost every part of Europe arises principally, first, from the large salaries which in some universities are given to professors, and which render them altogether independent of their diligence and success in their professions; and secondly, from the great number of students who, in order to get degrees or to be admitted to exercise certain professions, or who, for the sake of bursaries, exhibitions, scholarships, fellowships, etc., are obliged to resort to certain societies of this kind, whether the instructions which they are likely to receive there are or are not worth the receiving. All these different cases of negligence and corruption no doubt take place in some degree in all our Scotch universities. In the best of them, however, these cases take place in a much less degree than in the greater part of other considerable societies of the same kind; and I look upon this circumstance as the real cause of their present excellence. In the Medical College of Edinburgh in particular the salaries of the professors are insignificant. There are few or no bursaries or exhibitions, and their monopoly of degrees is broken in upon by all other universities, foreign and domestic. I require no other explication of its present acknowledged superiority over every other society of the same kind in Europe.

To sign a certificate in favour of any man whom we know little or nothing about is most certainly a practice which cannot be strictly vindicated. It is a practice, however, which from mere good-nature and without interest of any kind the most scrupulous men in the world are sometimes guilty of. I certainly do not mean to defend it. Bating the unhandsomeness of the practice, however, I would ask in what manner does the public suffer by it? The title of Doctor, such as it is, you will say, gives some credit and authority to the man upon whom it is bestowed; it extends his practice and consequently his field for doing mischief; it is not improbable too that it may increase his presumption and consequently his disposition to do mischief. That a degree injudiciously conferred may sometimes have some little effect of this kind it would surely be absurd to deny, but that this effect should be very considerable I cannot bring myself to believe. That Doctors are sometimes fools as well as other people is not in the present time one of those profound secrets which is known only to the learned. The title is not so very imposing, and it very seldom happens that a man trusts his health to another merely because that other is a Doctor. The person so trusted has almost always some knowledge or some craft which would procure him nearly the same trust, though he was not decorated with any such title. In fact the persons who apply for degrees in the irregular manner complained of are, the greater part of them, surgeons or apothecaries who are in the custom of advising and prescribing, that is, of practising as physicians; but who, being only surgeons and apothecaries, are not fee-ed as physicians. It is not so much to extend their practice as to increase their fees that they are desirous of being made Doctors. Degrees conferred even undeservedly upon such persons can surely do very little harm to the public. When the University of St. Andrews very rashly and imprudently conferred a degree upon one Green who happened to be a stage-doctor, they no doubt brought much ridicule and discredit upon themselves, but in what respect did they hurt the public? Green still continued to be what he was before, a stage-doctor, and probably never poisoned a single man more than he would have done though the honours of graduation had never been conferred upon him. Stage-doctors, I must observe, do not much excite the indignation of the faculty; more reputable quacks do. The former are too contemptible to be considered as rivals; they only poison the poor people; and the copper pence which are thrown up to them in handkerchiefs could never find their way to the pocket of a regular physician. It is otherwise with the latter: they sometimes intercept a part of what perhaps would have been better bestowed in another place. Do not all the old women in the country practise physic without exciting murmur or complaint? And if here and there a graduated Doctor should be as ignorant as an old woman, where can be the great harm? The beardless old woman indeed takes no fees; the bearded one does, and it is this circumstance, I strongly suspect, which exasperates his brethren so much against him.

There never was, and I will venture to say there never will be, a university from which a degree could give any tolerable security that the person upon whom it had been conferred was fit to practise physic. The strictest universities confer degrees only upon students of a certain standing. Their real motive for requiring this standing is that the student may spend more money among them and that they may make more profit by him. When he has attained this standing therefore, though he still undergoes what they call an examination, it scarce ever happens that he is refused his degree. Your examination at Edinburgh, I have all reason to believe, is as serious, and perhaps more so, than that of any other university in Europe; but when a student has resided a few years among you, has behaved dutifully to all his professors, and has attended regularly all their lectures, when he comes to his examination I suspect you are disposed to be as good-natured as other people. Several of your graduates, upon applying for license from the College of Physicians here, have had it recommended to them to continue their studies. From a particular knowledge of some of the cases I am satisfied that the decision of the College in refusing them their license was perfectly just—that is, was perfectly agreeable to the principles which ought to regulate all such decisions; and that the candidates were really very ignorant of their profession.

A degree can pretend to give security for nothing but the science of the graduate; and even for that it can give but a very slender security. For his good sense and discretion, qualities not discoverable by an academical examination, it can give no security at all; but without these the presumption which commonly attends science must render it in the practice of physic ten times more dangerous than the grossest ignorance when accompanied, as it sometimes is, with some degree of modesty and diffidence.

If a degree, in short, always has been, and, in spite of all the regulations which can be made, always must be, a mere piece of quackery, it is certainly for the advantage of the public that it should be understood to be so. It is in a particular manner for the advantage of the universities that for the resort of students they should be obliged to depend, not upon their privileges but upon their merit, upon their abilities to teach and their diligence in teaching; and that they should not have it in their power to use any of those quackish arts which have disgraced and degraded the half of them.

A degree which can be conferred only upon students of a certain standing is a statute of apprenticeship which is likely to contribute to the advancement of science, just as other statutes of apprenticeship have contributed to that of arts and manufactures. Those statutes of apprenticeship, assisted by other corporation laws, have banished arts and manufactures from the greater part of towns corporate. Such degrees, assisted by some other regulations of a similar tendency, have banished almost all useful and solid education from the greater part of universities. Bad work and high price have been the effect of the monopoly introduced by the former; quackery, imposture, and exorbitant fees have been the consequences of that established by the latter. The industry of manufacturing villages has remedied in part the inconveniences which the monopolies established by towns corporate had occasioned. The private interest of some poor Professors of Physic in some poor universities inconveniently situated for the resort of students has in part remedied the inconveniences which would certainly have resulted from that sort of monopoly which the great and rich universities had attempted to establish. The great and rich universities seldom graduated anybody but their own students, and not even these till after a long and tedious standing; five and seven years for a Master of Arts; eleven and sixteen for a Doctor of Law, Physic, or Divinity. The poor universities on account of the inconvenience of their situation, not being able to get many students, endeavoured to turn a penny in the only way in which they could turn it, and sold their degrees to whoever would buy them, generally without requiring any residence or standing, and frequently without subjecting the candidate even to a decent examination. The less trouble they gave, the more money they got, and I certainly do not pretend to vindicate so dirty a practice. All universities being ecclesiastical establishments under the immediate protection of the Pope, a degree from one of them gave all over Christendom very nearly the same privileges which a degree from any other could have given; and the respect which is to this day paid to foreign degrees, even in Protestant countries, must be considered as a remnant of Popery. The facility of obtaining degrees, particularly in physic, from those poor universities had two effects, both extremely advantageous to the public, but extremely disagreeable to graduates of other universities whose degrees had cost them much time and expense. First, it multiplied very much the number of doctors, and thereby no doubt sunk their fees, or at least hindered them from rising so very high as they otherwise would have done. Had the universities of Oxford and Cambridge been able to maintain themselves in the exclusive privilege of graduating all the doctors who could practise in England, the price of feeling the pulse might by this time have risen from two and three guineas, the price which it has now happily arrived at, to double or triple that sum; and English physicians might, and probably would, have been at the same time the most ignorant and quackish in the world. Secondly, it reduced a good deal the rank and dignity of a doctor, but if the physician was a man of sense and science it would not surely prevent his being respected and employed as a man of sense and science. If he was neither the one nor the other, indeed, his doctorship would no doubt avail him the less. But ought it in this case to avail him at all? Had the hopeful project of the rich and great universities succeeded, there would have been no occasion for sense or science. To have been a doctor would alone have been sufficient to give any man rank, dignity, and fortune enough. That in every profession the fortune of every individual should depend as much as possible upon his merit and as little as possible upon his privilege is certainly for the interest of the public. It is even for the interest of every particular profession, which can never so effectually support the general merit and real honour of the greater part of those who exercise it, as by resting on such liberal principles. Those principles are even most effectual for procuring them all the employment which the country can afford. The great success of quacks in England has been altogether owing to the real quackery of the regular physicians. Our regular physicians in Scotland have little quackery, and no quack accordingly has ever made his fortune among us.

After all, this trade in degrees I acknowledge to be a most disgraceful trade to those who exercise it; and I am extremely sorry that it should be exercised by such respectable bodies as any of our Scotch universities. But as it serves as a corrective of what would otherwise soon grow up to be an intolerable nuisance, the exclusive and corporation spirit of all thriving professions and of all great universities, I deny that it is hurtful to the public.

What the physicians of Edinburgh at present feel as a hardship is perhaps the real cause of their acknowledged superiority over the greater part of other physicians. The Royal College of Physicians there, you say, are obliged by their charter to grant a license without examination to all the graduates of Scotch universities. You are all obliged, I suppose, in consequence of this, to consult sometimes with very unworthy brethren. You are all made to feel that you must rest no part of your dignity upon your degree, a distinction which you share with the men in the world perhaps whom you despise the most, but that you must found the whole of it upon your merit. Not being able to derive much consequence from the character of Doctor, you are obliged perhaps to attend more to your character as men, as gentlemen, and as men of letters. The unworthiness of some of your brethren may perhaps in this manner be in part the cause of the very eminent and superior worth of many of the rest. The very abuse which you complain of may in this manner perhaps be the real source of your present excellence. You are at present well, wonderfully well, and when you are so, be assured there is always some danger in attempting to be better.

Adieu, my dear Doctor; after having delayed to write to you I am afraid I shall get my lug (ear) in my lufe (hand), as we say, for what I have written. But I ever am, most affectionately yours,


LONDON, 20th September 1774.[240]

Whether this decided expression of unfavourable opinion on the part of his old and venerated tutor altered the Duke of Buccleugh's mind on the subject, or in any way prevented him from persevering in his contemplated application to Government, we have no means of knowing, but at any rate no further action seems to have been taken in the matter, and it was left to the Scottish universities themselves to remedy abuses which were seriously telling on their own interest and good name.

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