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Adam Smith (1723-1790)

Taken from Sir Lesley Stephen & Sir Sidney Lee (eds.), Dictionary of National Biography: from the earliest times to 1900 (London, Oxford University Press, 1949).

Adam Smith was a political economist; he was born at Kirkcaldy on 5 June 1723, the only child of Adam Smith, writer to the signet, by Margaret, daughter of John Douglas of Strathendry, Fifeshire. His father, a native of Aberdeen, had been private secretary to Hugh Campbell, third earl of Loudoun, who in 1713 gave him the comptrollership of customs at Kirkcaldy. The salary was £40 a year, probably much increased by fees. The elder Smith died in April 1723. The younger Adam Smith was brought up by his mother, and the bond between them came to be exceptionally close.

When about three years old he was carried off by gipsies, but speedily recovered. He was a delicate child, and already inclined to the fits of absence of mind which were a lifelong characteristic. He was sent to the burgh school of Kirkcaldy, and was beginning Latin by 1733, as appears from the date in a copy of Eutropius with his name. Among his school-fellows was John Oswald (afterwards bishop of Raphoe), brother of James Oswald. The brothers Adam, the architects, who lived in Kirkcaldy, were also friends of his boyhood. Smith was sent to Glasgow for the session of 1737-8, and studied there for four sessions. He learnt some Greek under Alexander Dunlop and acquired taste for mathematics under Robert Simson, to whom he refers with great respect. Matthew, father of Dugald Stewart, whom he couples with Simson as a first-rate mathematician, was a fellow-student and lifelong friend.

The most important influence, however, was that of Francis Hutcheson, whose teaching both on moral and economic questions had considerable affinity to the later doctrines of his pupil. A letter written by David Hume to Hutcheson on 4 March 1740 shows that a ‘Mr. Smith’ had made an abstract of the Treatise of Human Nature, by which Hume was so well pleased as to send a copy of his book through Hutcheson to the compiler. Whether ‘Mr. Smith’ was Adam Smith is, however, uncertain. Smith obtained a Snell exhibition to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1740. The exhibitions were then worth £40 a year. According to the founder's will, the exhibitioners were to take orders in the episcopal church in Scotland. The regulation was not enforced after the union [1707]. According to Stewart, however, Smith was intended to take orders, but did not find the ‘ecclesiastical profession suitable to his taste.’

Smith went to Oxford on horseback in June 1740, and stayed there without interruption till 1746. His name does not appear in the list of graduates, but Thorold Rogers infers from the title of ‘dominus’ given to him in the buttery books that he took the B.A. degree in 1744. Smith's famous remarks upon the English universities in the Wealth of Nations imply that he owed little to the official system of tuition. He read industriously for himself, however; he had access to the college library, obtained a wide and accurate knowledge of Greek as well as of English literature, and employed himself in translations from the French with a view to the improvement of his style. Culloch reports ‘on the best authority’ that he was once found reading Hume's Treatise, and severely reprimanded. Letters from Smith to his mother, quoted by Brougham, show that he had suffered from ‘an inveterate scurvy and shaking of the hand,’ and had, as he thought, cured himself by tar-water. He also speaks of a ‘violent fit of laziness’ which had confined him to his elbow-chair for three months. He was probably overworked and solitary. The Scottish students were regarded with dislike at Oxford, and the only friend mentioned is John Douglas (1721-1807), also a Fifeshire man, and afterwards bishop of Salisbury.

Smith returned to Kirkcaldy in 1746. He was acquainted with Henry Home, Lord Kames, and, at Kames's suggestion, gave a course of lectures upon English literature in 1748-9. These were afterwards burnt by his own direction; but they had been seen by Hugh Blair, who acknowledges in his own lectures that he had taken ‘some ideas’ from them, and was thought to have taken them too freely. Smith, as appears from various allusions in his writings, held the ordinary opinions of the leading critics of his time. He preferred Racine to Shakespeare, and specially admired Swift, Dryden, Pope, and Gray. He told a contributor to the Bee that he had never been able to make a rhyme, but could compose blank verse ‘as fast as he could speak.’ He naturally shared Johnson's contempt for blank verse. When Boswell reported this coincidence, Johnson replied, ‘Had I known that he loved rhyme so much - I should have hugged him.’

Smith probably edited the edition of the poems of William Hamilton (1704-1754) of Bangour, published at this time. Smith repeated his literary lectures for three winters, and gave also some lectures upon economic topics. These are known only from a quotation by Dugald Stewart, which shows that he was strongly opposed to government interference with ‘the natural course of things.’ Smith appears to have made £100 by a course of lectures and his reputation presumably led to his unanimous election to the chair of logic at Glasgow on 9 January 1751. He began his official lectures in October. They were chiefly devoted to ‘rhetoric and belles-lettres.’ He also acted as substitute for Craigie, the professor of moral philosophy, who was sent to Lisbon for his health, and died in the following November.

Upon Craigie's death, Smith was transferred to the chair of moral philosophy on 29 April 1752. He was supported by his friend William Cullen, also professor at Glasgow, and both of them desired that David Hume might succeed to the chair of logic; but Smith admits that this would be against public opinion. Smith's new professorship seems to have been superior in point of money to the old one. There was an endowment of about £70 a year; the fees amounted to about £100 and Smith had a house in the college, where his mother and his cousin, Jane Douglas, lived with him. He moved to two other houses in succession during his professorship; but they were demolished with the old college buildings. There were some three hundred students in the college, of whom about eighty or ninety attended the moral philosophy class. Most of them were preparing for the ministry, and about a third were Irish presbyterians.

Smith gave lectures during the session at 7.30 a.m.., followed by an ‘examination’ at eleven, besides some private lectures. John Millar (1735-1801) describes his course to Dugald Stewart. It included four topics: natural theology, ethics, containing the substance of his Moral Sentiments, the theory of those political institutions which are founded upon ‘justice,’ that is, of jurisprudence, a treatise upon which is promised, though it was never completed, at the end of the Moral Sentiments; and of the political institutions founded upon ‘expediency,’ a topic which corresponds to the Wealth of Nations. Millar says that his manner, ‘though not graceful, was plain and unaffected;’ that he spoke at first with hesitation, but warmed up as he proceeded, especially when in view of possible controversy, and then spoke with great animation and power of illustration. He used, according to the elder Alison, to watch some particular student of expressive countenance, and be guided by such hearer's attentiveness or listlessness. The lectures became famous, especially after Smith's publication of the Moral Sentiments. Lord Shelburne sent his younger brother Thomas to study under Smith, and Voltaire's friend, Theodore Tronchin, a physician at Geneva, sent a son for the same purpose in 1761.

Smith, as Mr. Rae shows from the college records, took a very active part in business during his professorship. He was employed to conduct various legal matters, such as a controversy with Balliol over the Snell exhibitions. He was ‘quæstor’ or treasurer from 1758 to 1764, and curator of the chambers let to students; he was Dean of Faculty from 1760 to 1762; and in 1762 was appointed vice-rector, in which capacity he had to preside over all college meetings. The number of quarrels among the professors, of which Reid complains upon succeeding Smith, shows that this position was no sinecure. Smith was a patron of James Watt, who was enabled by the college to set up as mathematical-instrument maker in Glasgow in spite of the trade privileges of the town; he advised Robert Foulis when starting an academy of design at Glasgow, and supported the university typefoundry established by his friend Wilson, the professor of astronomy.

It is remarkable that Smith was active in the opposition carried on by the university and the town council to building a theatre in Glasgow. Smith approved of playgoing; he speaks strongly in the Wealth of Nations against the fanatical dislike of the theatre, and agreed with Hume in supporting John Home in the agitation about ‘Douglas.’ He may, as Mr. Rae suggests, have had excellent reasons for discriminating between theatres at Glasgow and theatres at Paris; but his motives must be conjectural.

Smith also took a leading part in protesting against the claim of a professor to vote upon his own election to another professorship, and in favour of the deprivation of another for going abroad with a pupil in defiance of the refusal of his colleagues to grant leave of absence. Smith joined in the social recreations characteristic of the time. He belonged to a club founded by Andrew Cochrane, provost of Glasgow, for the discussion of trade. Sir James Stewart Denham found soon afterwards that the Glasgow merchants had been converted by Smith to free-trade in corn; and such matters had doubtless been discussed at the club.

Smith was also a member of the Literary Society of Glasgow, founded in 1752; and on 23 January 1753 read a paper upon Hume's Essays on Commerce. He and his friend Joseph Black, the chemist, joined the weekly dinners of the ‘Anderston Club,’ and Watt testifies that he was kindly welcomed at this club by his superiors in education and position. Smith's orthodoxy seems to have been a little suspected at Glasgow, partly on account of his friendship with Hume. It does not appear precisely at what time this friendship began. Hume did not settle at Edinburgh until Smith was leaving for Glasgow. In 1752 they were in correspondence, and Hume was consulting Smith about his essays and his projected history. Smith frequently visited his friend at Edinburgh. He was elected a member of the Philosophical Society, to which Hume was the secretary upon its revival in the same year; and in 1754 was one of fifteen persons present at the first meeting of the Select Society, started by the painter Allan Ramsay, which became the ‘Edinburgh Society for encouraging Arts, Sciences, Manufactures, and Agriculture in Scotland.’ Smith presided at a meeting on 19 June 1754; and gave notice of discussions upon naturalisation and upon the policy of bounties for the export of corn. Many economic topics were discussed at this society, which also, like the Society of Arts (founded in 1753 in London), offered premiums in support of its objects and manufactures. It moreover proposed to teach Scots to write English, and incurred ridicule, which probably led to its extinction in 1765. Smith also contributed to the Edinburgh Review of which two numbers only appeared. He reviewed Johnson's Dictionary in the first number, and in the second proposed an extension of the Review to foreign literature, adding an account of the recent writings of French celebrities, including Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality. Suspicions as to the orthodoxy of the writers, and an erroneous belief that Hume was concerned in it, led to the discontinuance of the Review.

In 1758 Hume was anxious that Smith should succeed to an expected vacancy in the Chair of the Law of Nature and Nations, in the gift of the crown. The holder, he thought, was willing to resign it for £800 and ‘the foul mouths of all the roarers against heresy’ could be easily stopped. Smith, however, did not become a candidate. In 1762 Smith was an original member of the ‘Poker Club,’ so called because intended to stir up public opinion on behalf of a Scottish militia, though in practice it seems to have done little beyond promoting conviviality. In 1759 Smith published his Theory of the Moral Sentiments. The book was warmly welcomed by Hume, who reported its favourable reception in London and was highly praised in the Annual Register in an article attributed to Burke.

Smith was henceforth recognised as one of the first authors of the day. He visited London for the first time in 1761. It was probably on this occasion that he accompanied Lord Shelburne on the journey, and urged his principles with such ‘benevolence’ and ‘eloquence’ as permanently to affect the mind of his companion. It is probable also that a famous interview took place at this time with Dr. Johnson. They certainly had a rough altercation at the house of William Strahan, Smith's publisher. Scott afterwards told a story according to which the two moralists met at Glasgow, and ended a discussion relating to Smith's account of Hume's last illness by giving each other the lie in the coarsest terms. The story involves palpable anachronisms as Johnson's only visit to Glasgow was before Hume's death. This is gratifying to biographers who are shocked by the anecdote. That something of the kind took place at Strahan's, however, is undoubted, and may have been the foundation of Scott's story.

Among the admirers of Smith's Moral Sentiments was Charles Townshend (1725-1767). He was stepfather of Henry Scott, third Duke of Buccleuch and told Hume as soon as the book came out that he should like to place the Duke under Smith's charge. He visited Smith at Glasgow in the summer. In October 1763, when the Duke was about to leave Eton, the offer of a travelling tutorship was made accordingly, and accepted by Smith. He was to have his travelling expenses, with £300 a year and a life-pension of the same amount. He applied for leave of absence in the following November, undertaking to pay over his salary to a substitute, and returning to his pupils the fees for his class. He had to force the money upon them.

Soon after starting upon his travels he sent in his resignation. Smith left London for Paris with the Duke in February 1764. They met Hume at Paris, and proceeded almost immediately to Toulouse. They were joined in the autumn by the Duke's younger brother, Hew Campbell Scott, and stayed at Toulouse for eighteen months, making a few excursions. They visited Montpellier during the session of the states of Languedoc; and Smith, though he could never talk French perfectly, went into society and was pleased with many of the provincial authorities. In August 1764 the party started for a tour through the south of France and went to Geneva, where they spent two months. Smith saw Voltaire, for whom he always had a profound respect. When Rogers in 1789 spoke of some one as ‘a Voltaire,’ Smith replied emphatically, ‘Sir, there has been but one Voltaire’. He also met Charles Bonnet and Georges Louis Le Sage, the professor of physics. In December he went to Paris; Hume left shortly afterwards, but introduced Smith to his Parisian friends.

During the next ten months Smith had much intercourse with philosophers in Parisian salons. He saw Holbach, Helvetius, D'Alembert, Necker, Turgot, and Quesnay. Morellet, with whom he became especially intimate, afterwards translated the Wealth of Nations. Condorcet says that Turgot not only discussed economic questions with Smith, but continued to correspond with him afterwards. Stewart denies, and apparently on sufficient grounds, that this correspondence ever existed; and no letters have been found. At a later period, however, Smith certainly obtained a valuable document through Turgot's ‘particular favour’.

The influence of the French economists upon Smith's opinions has been much discussed; but it is clear that the facts of the intercourse at this time throw no doubt upon the view that Smith reached his main theories independently; and that he was influenced only so far as discussions with eminent men of similar tendencies would tend to clear and stimulate his mind. He told Rogers in 1789 that he thought Turgot to be an honest man, but too little acquainted with human nature - a remark which may have been suggested by Turgot's later career. While in Paris Smith had some concern in Hume's quarrel with Rousseau and was anxious, as long as possible, to prevent Hume from making the affair public.

A story is told of Smith's love of an English lady at this time, and the love of a French marquise for Smith. Neither passion was returned. Stewart also mentioned a disappointment in an early and long attachment to a lady who survived him but nothing more is known of any romance in his life.

On 18 October 1766 Smith's younger pupil, Hew Campbell Scott, was murdered in the street in Paris. Smith at once returned with the remains, reaching Dover on 1 November. He stayed in London superintending a third edition of the Moral Sentiments and reading in the British Museum. On 21 May 1767 he was elected F.R.S. He had by this time returned to Kirkcaldy, where he lived with his mother and his cousin Jane Douglas, who had retired thither from Glasgow after his resignation of the professorship. Smith was now occupied with the composition of the Wealth of Nations. He visited the Duke of Buccleuch, who had been married on 3 May 1767, and whose settlement at Dalkeith was the occasion of a great entertainment. The Duke testified afterwards that they had never had a disagreement, and the friendship lasted till Smith's death. Smith then stayed quietly at Kirkcaldy, and in February 1770 Hume writes to him of a report that he was going to London with a view to the publication of his book. Smith, however, was delayed in his work, partly by ill-health; and Hume in April 1772 complains that he was ‘cutting himself off entirely from human society.’

In 1772 his friend William Pulteney recommended him to the directors of the East India Company as member of a commission of inquiry into their administration to be sent to India. Smith, in a letter of 5 September 1772, states his willingness to accept the appointment, but the scheme was soon afterwards abandoned. Smith mentions that his book would have been ready for the press but for bad health, for ‘too much thinking upon one thing’ and other ‘avocations’ due to public troubles; probably, as Mr. Rae suggests, liabilities incurred by the Duke of Buccleuch through the failure of Heron's bank. Smith went to London with the manuscript of his book in the spring of 1773, leaving directions with Hume as to the disposal of his other manuscripts in the event of his death. He was in London frequently, if he did not stay there continuously, during the next four years. In 1775 he was elected a member of ‘The Club;’ he is mentioned by Horace Walpole, Bishop Percy, and others; and it is said that he often met Franklin and carefully discussed chapters of the Wealth of Nations with Franklin, Dr. Price, and ‘others of the literati’. Various passages in the book show that it was undergoing revisions at this time.

The Wealth of Nations was at last published on 9 March 1776. He seems to have received £500 from Strahan for the first edition, and published the later editions upon half profits. The book succeeded at once, and the first edition was exhausted in six months. According to Mr. Rae it was not mentioned in the House of Commons till 11 Noember. 1783, when Fox quoted a maxim from that ‘excellent book’. As Fox admitted to Charles Butler that he had never read the book and could never understand the subject, the allusion is the stronger testimony to its general authority. It was never even ‘mentioned in the House again’ (that is, of course, in the very imperfect reports) ‘until 1787,’ nor in the House of Lords till 1793. During the American war, however, Lord North, in imposing new taxes, seems to have taken some hints from the Wealth of Nations, especially in the house-tax (1778) and the malt-tax (1780). Pitt studied the book carefully, applied its principles in the French treaty of 1786, and spoke of it with veneration when introducing his budget on 17 February 1792.

Whether it be true or not, as Buckle said, that the Wealth of Nations was, ‘in its ultimate results, probably the most important that had ever been written’, it is probable that no book can be mentioned which so rapidly became an authority both with statesmen and philosophers. Hume wrote a warm congratulation, with a judicious hint of criticism. His health was breaking, and Smith had intended to bring him from Edinburgh after the publication of his Wealth of Nations. Hume, however, started by himself, and met Smith, on his way northwards, at Morpeth. Smith had to go on to Kirkcaldy to see his mother, who was ill.

Hume committed the care of his posthumous publications to Smith, and especially desired him to guarantee the appearance of the Dialogues on Natural Religion. Smith made difficulties, on the ground of the probable clamour and possible injury to his own prospects. He promised to preserve a copy of the book if entrusted to him; but different arrangements were finally made by Hume for the publication. Smith refused to receive a legacy of £200 left to him by Hume, only, as he thought, in consideration of the performance of this task. Smith, however, promised Hume that he would correct the other works, and add to the autobiography an account of Hume's behaviour in his last illness. Smith was present at a final dinner which Hume gave to his friends in Edinburgh on 4 July 1776. The Life, with the promised account of the illness in a letter to Strahan, was published in 1777. Smith spoke in the strongest terms of Hume's virtues, to the great offence of the orthodox. The letter appeared to be intended to show how one who was not a Christian could die. Smith probably did not appreciate its significance to others. He was attacked in a scurrilous Letter to Adam Smith: by one of the people called Christians, by George Horne, afterwards bishop of Norwich. Of this he never took notice.

In January 1777 he was again in London, but returned to Kirkcaldy, and there received his appointment as commissioner of customs in December following. The appointment may have been due to the Duke of Buccleuch, or to Lord North and Sir Grey Cooper, the secretary of the treasury, in recognition of the suggestions about taxes in the Wealth of Nations. The appointment was £600 a year, and the Duke of Buccleuch refused Smith's offer to resign the pension. Smith was therefore now well off, and took Panmure House in the Canongate, where he settled with his mother, his cousin Miss Douglas, and David, son of another cousin, Colonel Robert Douglas of Strathendry.

He had a good library and entertained his friends simply, especially at Sunday suppers. He read Greek, and took a weekly dinner at the ‘Oyster Club,’ of which he and his friends Joseph Black and James Hutton the geologist were the chief members. He was one of five commissioners, and attended to his duties regularly. Scott gives some singular anecdotes of the absence of mind for which he was always remarkable, and especially of one occasion upon which he automatically imitated the military salute made by a stately porter. He was becoming infirm; and though his duties were not severe, they occupied him sufficiently to prevent him from completing new original work. He apologises to his publisher in December 1782 for his idleness. He was now, however, preparing a third edition of the Wealth of Nations, to which he made considerable additions. He was consulted by William Eden (afterwards Lord Auckland) and the secretary to the board of trade in 1779 in regard to free trade with Ireland and in 1783 in regard to the regulations of the American trade. Smith was a steady whig, and heartily approved of Fox's East India Bill.

In 1784 Burke passed through Edinburgh on his way to be installed as lord rector of Glasgow. ‘Burke,’ as Smith said, ‘is the only man I ever knew who thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do without any previous communication having passed between us.’ They were at this time in political agreement, and Smith, after receiving Burke at Edinburgh, accompanied him to Glasgow and upon an excursion to Loch Lomond. Burke was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in June 1784. This society had been founded in the previous year, superseding the old Philosophical Society. Smith was one of the four presidents of the literary branch, Robertson, Blair, and Cosmo Gordon being his colleagues. In August 1785 Burke again visited Scotland in company with Windham, and renewed his intercourse with Smith.

Smith's mother died on 23 May 1784 in her ninetieth year. His grief was so intense as to surprise his friends, and was the more trying as his own health was declining. In the winter of 1786-7 he had an attack which caused serious alarm. In April he went to London to consult John Hunter. He was much wasted, but was able to go into society. He met Pitt on several occasions. They dined together at Henry Dundas's house at Wimbledon, when Pitt told him to be seated first; ‘for we are all your scholars’. George Wilson reports to Bentham (14 July) that Smith is ‘much with the ministry,’ and engaged in some researches for which the clerks at the public offices are to give him every facility. Wilberforce also talked about the society recently started for extending the Scottish fisheries. Smith observed, ‘with a certain characteristic coolness,’ that the only result would be the loss of every shilling invested. He was not far wrong.

In November 1787 Smith was elected lord rector of Glasgow. He acknowledged the honour in a warm letter of thanks to the principal and was installed on 12 December but he gave no inaugural address. In 1788 he was in much better health. He lost his cousin, Jane Douglas, who had lived with him for many years, in the autumn. In 1789 Smith employed himself upon a revision of the Moral Sentiments, the previous editions of which had remained unaltered. The suppression of a reference to Rochefoucauld, whom he had coupled with Mandeville, was criticised, very needlessly, as a concession to a private friendship with Rochefoucauld's grandson.

In the spring of 1790 Smith was plainly failing. When he became aware of his state he sent for his friends Hutton and Black, and insisted upon their burning sixteen volumes of his manuscripts. They did so without knowing what were the contents. Smith's mind seemed to be relieved. He afterwards had some friends to supper, as usual, but was forced to retire early, using a phrase which has been variously reported. It cannot be known whether he adjourned the meeting to another place or to another and a better world. He died on 17 July 1790, and was buried in the Canongate churchyard.

Smith left his property to his cousin, David Douglas (afterwards Lord Reston), who was to follow the instructions of Hutton and Black in regard to his works, and to pay an annuity of £20 to Miss Janet Douglas, and on her death £400 to Andrew Cleghorn. His property was less than had been expected from the modesty of his establishment; and Stewart found the cause to be that he had secretly given away sums ‘on a scale much beyond what would have been expected from his fortune.’ Smith's library passed to the heirs of his nephew.

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