1902 Encyclopedia > Adam Smith

Adam Smith
Scottish economist

ADAM SMITH (1723-1790), the greatest of political economists, was the only child of Adam Smith, comptroller of the customs at Kirkcaldy in Fifeshire, Scotland, and of Margaret Douglas, daughter of Mr Douglas of Strathendry, near Leslie. He was born at Kirkcaldy on 5th June 1723, some months after the death of his father. Of a weak constitution, he required and received during his early years the most tender care of an affectionate mother, which he repaid in after life by every attention which filial gratitude could dictate. When he was three years old he was taken on a visit to his uncle at Strathendry, and when playing alone at the door of the house was carried off by a party of "tinkers." Fortunately he was at once missed, and the vagrants pursued and overtaken in Leslie wood. He received his early education in the school of Kirkcaldy under David Miller, amongst whose pupils were many who were afterwards distinguished men. Smith showed as a boy great fondness for books and remarkable powers of memory; and his friendly and generous disposition made him popular amongst his schoolfellows. He was sent in 1737 to the university of Glasgow, where he attended the lectures of Dr Hutcheson; and in 1740 he went to Baliol College, Oxford, as exhibitioner on Snell's foundation, with a view to his taking orders in the English Church. He remained at that university for seven years. At Glasgow his favourite studies had been mathematics and natural philosophy; but at Oxford he appears to have devoted himself almost entirely to moral and political science and to the cultivation of the ancient and modern languages. He also laboured to improve his English style by the practice of translation, particularly from the French. He was not impressed with a favourable opinion of the system of education then pursued at Oxford. After his return to Kirkcaldy he resided there two years with his mother, continuing his studies; he had relinquished the idea of entering the ecclesiastical profession, but had not yet adopted any other plan for his future life. In 1748 he removed to Edinburgh, and there, under the patronage of Lord Karnes, gave lectures on rhetoric and belles-lettres. About this time commenced his acquaintance with David Hume, which afterwards ripened into an intimate friendship, founded on mutual esteem; his relations with that great thinker must have powerfully influenced the formation of his opinions. In 1751 he was elected professor of logic at Glasgow, and in the following year was transferred to the chair of moral philosophy in the same university, which had become vacant by the death of Thomas Craigie, the successor of Hutcheson. This position he occupied for nearly twelve years, which he long afterwards declared to have been "by far the most useful, and therefore by far the happiest and most honourable period of his life." He was highly esteemed by his colleagues, of whom, on his side, he speaks as "very excellent men." His course of lectures, as Professor Millar informs us, was divided into four parts—(1) natural theology; (2) ethics; (3) a treatment of that branch of morality which relates to justice, a subject which he handled historically after the manner of Montesquieu, "endeavouring to trace the gradual progress of jurisprudence, both public and private, from the rudest to the most refined ages, and to point out the effects of those arts which contribute to subsistence and to the accumulation of property in producing corresponding improvements or alterations in law and government "; (4) a study of those political regulations which are founded, not upon the principle of justice, but that of expediency, and which are calculated to increase the riches, the power, and the prosperity of a state. Under this view he considered the political institutions relating to commerce, to finances, to ecclesiastical and military establishments. He first appeared as an author by contributing two articles to the Edinburgh Review (an earlier journal than the present, which was commenced in 1755, but of which only two numbers [169-1] were published),—one on Johnson's Dictionary and the other a letter to the editors on the state of literature in the different countries of Europe. In 1759 appeared his Theory of Moral Sentiments, embodying the second portion of his university course, to which was added in the 2d edition an appendix with the title, "Considerations concerning the first Formation of Languages." After the publication of this work his ethical doctrines occupied less space in his lectures, and a larger development was given to the subjects of jurisprudence and political economy. Stewart gives us to understand that he had already, as early as 1752, adopted the liberal views of commercial policy which he afterwards preached with so much effect; and this we should have been inclined to believe independently from the fact that such views were propounded in that year in the Political Discourses of his friend Hume. His residence at Glasgow brought him into personal relations with many intelligent men from whose practical experience he could derive information on mercantile questions; and, on the other hand, we are told, his reasonings convinced several eminent merchants of that city of the soundness of the principles of free trade, which were at variance with their previous opinions.

In 1762 the senatus academicus of Glasgow conferred on him the honorary degree of doctor of laws. In 1763 he was invited to take charge of the young duke of Buccleuch on his travels. He accepted the proposal, and resigned his professorship. He went abroad with his pupil in March 1764; they remained only a few days at Paris and then settled at Toulouse, then the seat of a parliament, where they spent eighteen months in the best society of the place, afterwards making a tour in the south of France and passing two months at Geneva. Returning to Paris about Christmas of 1765, they remained there till the October of the following year. The period was one of intellectual and social ferment, and Smith was brought into relation with the most eminent persons of the time. He lived in the society of Quesnay, Turgot, D'Alembert, Morellet, Helvétius, Marmontel, and the duke de la Rochefoucault. It was the regard he entertained for the young nobleman [169-2] last named that dictated the omission in the later editions of his Moral Sentiments of the name of the celebrated ancestor of the duke, whom he had associated with Mandeville as author of one of the " licentious systems" reviewed in the seventh part of that work. Smith was without doubt much influenced by his contact with the members of the physiocratic school, especially with its chief, though Dupont de Nemours probably goes too far in speaking of Smith and himself as having been "condisciples chez M. Quesnay." Smith afterwards described Quesnay as a man "of the greatest modesty and simplicity," and declared his system of political economy to be, "with all its imperfections, the nearest approximation to truth that had yet been published on the principles of that science." In October 1766 tutor and pupil returned home, and they ever afterwards retained strong feelings of mutual esteem. For the next ten years Smith lived with his mother at Kirkcaldy, only paying occasional visits to Edinburgh and London; he was engaged in close study during most of this time, but unbent his mind in familiar intercourse with a few friends. He describes himself to Hume during this period as being extremely happy, comfortable, and contented. He was now occupied on his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, which there is some reason for believing he had begun at Toulouse. That great work appeared in 1776. After its publication, and only a few months before his own death, Hume wrote to congratulate his friend— "Euge! belle! dear Mr Smith, I am much pleased with your performance, and the perusal of it has taken me from a state of great anxiety. It was a work of so much expectation by yourself, by your friends, and by the public, that I trembled for its appearance; but am now much relieved. Not but that the reading of it requires so much attention, and the public is disposed to give so little, that I shall still doubt for some time of its being at first very popular. But it has depth, and solidity, and acuteness, and is so much illustrated by curious facts that it must at last take the public attention." Smith attended Hume affectionately during a part of his last illness, and soon after the death of the philosopher there was published, along with his autobiography, a letter from Smith to Strahan, in which he gave an account of the closing scenes of his friend's life and expressed warm admiration for his character. This letter excited some rancour among the theologians, and Dr George Horne, afterwards bishop of Norwich, published in 1777, by way of comment on it, A Letter to Adam Smith on the Life, Death, and Philosophy of his Friend David Hume, by one of the people called Christians. But Smith took no notice of this effusion. [170-2] He was also attacked by Archbishop Magee for the omission in subsequent editions of a passage of the Moral Sentiments which that prelate had cited with high commendation as among the ablest illustrations of the doctrine of the atonement. Smith had omitted the paragraph in question on the ground that it was unnecessary and misplaced; but Magee suspected him of having been influenced by deeper reasons.

The greater part of the two years which followed the publication of the Wealth of Nations Smith spent in London, enjoying the society of the most eminent persons of the day, amongst whom were Gibbon, Burke, Reynolds, and Beauclerk. In 1778 he was appointed, through the influence of the duke of Buccleuch, one of the commissioners of customs in Scotland, and in consequence of this fixed his residence at Edinburgh. His mother, now in extreme old age, lived with him, as did also his cousin, Miss Jane Douglas, who assisted him in the care of his aged parent, and superintended his household. Much of his now ample income is believed to have been spent in secret charities, and he kept a simple, though hospitable, table, at which, "without the formality of an invitation, he was always happy to receive his friends." "His Sunday suppers," says McCulloch, "were long celebrated at Edinburgh." One of his favourite places of resort in these years was a club of which Dr Hutton, Dr Black, Dr Adam Ferguson, John Clerk the naval tactician, Robert Adam the architect, as well as Smith himself, were original members, and to which Dugald Stewart, Professor Playfair, and other eminent men were afterwards admitted. Another source of enjoyment was the small but excellent library he possessed; it is still preserved in his family; Professor Nicholson has had access to it, and was struck by the varied nature of the collection, and especially by the large number of books of travel and poetry which it contained. In 1787 he was elected lord rector of the university of Glasgow, an honour which he received with "heartfelt joy." If we can believe a note in Wilberforce's Correspondence, he visited London in the spring of the same year, and was introduced by Dundas [170-3] to Pitt, Wilberforce, and others. From the death of his mother in 1784, and that of Miss Douglas in 1788, his health and strength gradually declined, and after a tedious and painful illness he died on 17th July 1790.

Before his decease Smith directed that all his manuscripts except a few selected essays should be destroyed, and they were accordingly committed to the flames. Of the pieces preserved by his desire the most valuable is his tract on the history of astronomy, which he himself described as a "fragment of a great work "; it was doubtless a portion of the "connected history of the liberal sciences and elegant arts" which, we are told, he had projected in early life. Among the papers destroyed were probably, as Stewart suggests, the lectures on natural religion and jurisprudence which formed part of his course at Glasgow, and also the lectures on rhetoric which he delivered at Edinburgh in 1748. To the latter Blair seems to refer when, in his work on Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres (1783), he acknowledges his obligations to a manuscript treatise on rhetoric by Smith, part of which its author had shown to him many years before, and which he hoped Smith would give to the public. It was probably the lectures on jurisprudence which Smith had in view when, some time before his death expressing regret that he "had done so little," he added, "I meant to have done more, and there are materials in my papers of which I could have made a great deal." He had promised at the end of his Theory of Moral Sentiments a treatise on the general principles of jurisprudence from the historical point of view, which would doubtless have been a development of his university lectures on that subject.

In person Smith was of about the middle size, well made and stout, though not corpulent. His features are said to be well represented in the medallion by Tassie engraved in McCulloch's edition of the Wealth of Nations. His discourses as professor were almost entirely extemporary, and, as he was always interested in his subject, he never failed to interest his hearers. He was sometimes, Millar tells us, embarrassed and spoke with hesitation at the outset; but "as he advanced the matter seemed to crowd upon him, his manner became warm and animated, and his expression easy and fluent." In society, except amongst intimate friends, he spoke but seldom, and was rather disposed to enjoy in silence the gaiety of those around him. He often seemed altogether occupied with his own thoughts, or might even have been supposed, from his looks and gestures, to be "in the fervour of composition." "He was the most absent man in company," says Alexander Carlyle, "that I ever saw, moving his lips and talking to himself and smiling in the midst of large companies." When called on to give his opinion of the matter under discussion he was apt to do so too much in the manner of a lecture. Easy and flowing as is the style of his books, yet to the end he wrote slowly and with difficulty; he did not usually himself take pen in hand, but dictated to an amanuensis, whilst he walked up and down his apartment. In character he was sincere and earnest, in manner apparently cold, but capable of strong feelings, whether of personal affection or of moral indignation. His frequent acts of beneficence were marked by delicacy no less than by liberality. He was a model of filial love and duty, and took to the last the warmest interest in all that concerned the welfare of his friends.

As a moral philosopher Smith cannot be said to have won much acceptance for his fundamental doctrine. This doctrine is that all our moral sentiments arise from sympathy, that is, from the principle of our nature "which leads us to enter into the situations of other men and to partake with them in the passions which those situations have a tendency to excite." Our direct sympathy with the agent in the circumstances in which he is placed gives rise, according to this view, to our notion of the propriety of his action, whilst our indirect sympathy with those whom his actions have benefited or injured gives rise to our notions of merit and demerit in the agent himself. It seems justly alleged against this system by Dr Thomas Brown that ''the moral sentiments, the origin of which it ascribes to our secondary feelings of mere sympathy, arc assumed as previously existing in the original emotions with which the secondary feelings are said to be in unison." A second objection urged, perhaps with less justice, against the theory is that it fails to account for the authoritative character which is felt to be inherent in our sense of right and wrong—for what Butler calls the "supremacy of conscience." But those who most strongly dissent from Smith's general doctrine are warm in their admiration of the eloquence of his style—sometimes, however, faulty on the side of redundancy— and the felicity of his illustrations. In all its minor details, says Brown, "the work may be considered as presenting a model of philosophic beauty," and it is universally admitted that the author has thrown much light on many delicate and subtle phenomena of our moral nature. The minute observation and the rare ingenuity which he shows in dealing with the finer traits of character and the less obvious indications of feeling remind us of the similar qualities exhibited in a different field in the Wealth of Nations.

It is on the latter work that Smith's fame mainly rests. Under POLITICAL ECONOMY (vol. xix. pp. 365-370) will be found a detailed analysis of the economic scheme contained in it, and an examination of its spirit and tendency as a contribution to the philosophy of society. We have there sufficiently exposed the exaggeration which represents Smith as the creator of political economy. But the Wealth of Nations is, without doubt, the greatest existing book on that department of knowledge, the only attempt to replace and so antiquate it—that of John Stuart Mill—having, notwithstanding its partial usefulness, on the whole decidedly failed. Buckle, however, goes too far when he pronounces it "the most important book ever written," just as he similarly exceeds due measure when he makes its author superior as a philosopher to Hume. Mackintosh more justly said of it that it stands on a level with the treatise De Jure Belli et Pacis, the Essay on the Human Understanding, and the Spirit of Laws, in the respect that these four works are severally the most conspicuous landmarks in the progress of the sciences with which they deal. And, when he added that the Wealth of Nations was "perhaps the only book which produced an immediate, general, and irrevocable change in some of the most important parts of the legislation of all civilized states," he scarcely spoke too strongly if we understand him as referring to its influence as an agent of demolition. It certainly operated powerfully through the harmony of its critical side with the tendencies of the half-century which followed its publication to the assertion of personal freedom and "natural rights." It discredited the economic policy of the past, and promoted the overthrow of institutions which had come down from earlier times, but were unsuited to modern society. As a theoretic treatment of social economy, and therefore as a guide to social reconstruction and practice in the future, it is provisional, not definitive. But here too it has rendered eminent service: it has established many truths and dissipated many obstinate prejudices; it has raised the views of all thinking men on national wealth to a higher level; and, when the study of its subject comes to be systematized on the basis of a general social philosophy more complete and durable than Smith's, no contributions to that final construction will be found so valuable as his.

Buckle has the idea that the two principal works of Smith, the Theory of Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of Nations, are mutually complementary parts of one great scheme, in which human nature is intended to be dealt with as a whole,—the former exhibiting the operation of the benevolent feelings, the latter of what, by a singular nomenclature, inadmissible since Butler wrote, he calls "the passion of selfishness." In each division the motor contemplated is regarded as acting singly, without any interference of the opposite principle.

This appears to be an artificial and misleading notion. Neither in the plan of Smith's university course nor in the well-known passage at the end of his Moral Sentiments is there any indication of his having conceived such a bipartite scheme. The object of the Wealth of Nations is surely in no sense psychological, as is that of the Moral Sentiments. The purpose of the work is to exhibit social phenomena, not to demonstrate their source in the mental constitution of the individual. And Buckle seems to have fallen into the error of confounding "sympathy" with benevolence, or at least of regarding their spheres as coextensive. It is only in his ethical treatise that Smith carries back the pursuit of wealth to its ultimate motive; and, when he does so, instead of tracing it to a selfish principle, which is to be placed in contrast with sympathy, he expressly declares it to have its origin in "a regard to the sentiments of mankind"; in other words, he makes it a consequence of the desire of sympathy.

In relation to Smith's personality, which is at present our principal object, it may be observed that his moral features are exhibited in an interesting way in his great work. The most marked characteristics thus reflected are his strong sympathy with the working classes, his contempt for vulgar politics, and his hatred of the spirit of monopoly, —the last manifesting itself especially in his suspicion of the public conduct of merchants and manufacturers. The first of these sentiments breaks out in several places, as in the discussion of the laws of settlement and in the remarks on combinations, and notably in the often-quoted passage where he says: "It is but equity that those who feed, clothe, and lodge the whole body of the people should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed, and lodged." He has no respect for that "insidious and crafty animal, vulgarly called a statesman or politician," and complains that the "sneaking arts of underling tradesmen" are erected into political maxims for the conduct of a great empire. "All for ourselves and nothing for other people seems in every age of the world to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind." The project of shutting out every other nation from a share in the benefits of our colonial trade he brands as an "invidious and malignant" one. He never tires of condemning the "mean rapacity," the "monopolizing spirit," the "impertinent jealousy," the "interested sophistry " of the capitalist class. "Our merchants and manufacturers," he says—and the remark is not yet out of date—"complain much of the effect of high wages in raising the price, and thereby lessening the sale, of their goods both at home and abroad; they say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits; they are silent with respect to the pernicious effects of their own gains; they complain only of those of other people." "Their interest is never exactly the same with that of the public; they have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public; and they accordingly have upon many occasions both deceived and oppressed it." This class he regarded, in fact, as corrupting by its selfishness the policy of the European nations and in particular of England, and as constituting the strength of the opposition, which he feared would be insuperable, to a system of commercial freedom. The general impression of its author which the book leaves behind it is that of a large, healthy, and generous nature, earnest in insisting on fair play for all and prompt to denounce with contemptuous vehemence anything which wore the appearance of injustice.

Our principal authority for the biography of Smith is Dugald Stewart's Account of his Life and Writings, originally read (1793) before the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and afterwards prefixed to Smith's Essays on Philosophical Subjects, as edited by Black and Hutton. Additional particulars are given in Brougham's Men of Letters and Science, Burton's Life of Hume, and Alexander Carlyle's Autobiography; and some characteristic anecdotes of him will be found in Memoirs of the Life and Works of Sir John Sinclair (1837). For comments on his Theory of Moral Sentiments, see, besides Stewart, as cited above, Dr T. Brown's Philosophy of the Human Mind, lects. 80 and 81; Sir J. Mackintosh's Dissertation on the Progress of Ethical Philosophy; J. A. Farcer's Adam Smith (1881), in the series entitled English Philosophers; and the art. ETHICS in the present work. On the Wealth of Nations, the student may consult the prefaces to McCulloch's, Rogers's, and Nicholson's editions of that work; Rogers's Historicat Gleanings (I860); the art. " Smith " in Coquelin and Guillaumin's Dictionnaire de I'Economie Politique; Bagehot's Economic Studies (1880); and Cossa's Guide to the Study of Political Economy (Eng. trans., 1880), chap, v., where the author has enumerated the most important memoirs by foreign writers on Smith as an economist. (J. K. I.)


169-1 These two numbers were reprinted in 1818. Smith's letter to the editors is specially interesting for its account of the Encyclopédie and its criticism of Rousseau's pictures of savage life.

169-2 The duke undertook a translation of the Theory of Moral Sentiments, but the Abbé Blavet's version appeared (1774) before his was completed and he then relinquished the design. An earlier French translation had been published (1764) under the title Métaphysique de l'Ame; and there is a laterone—the best—by the marquis de Condorcet (1798, 2d ed. 1830).

170-1 Mr J. E. T. Rogers published in the Academy, 28th February 1885, a letter of Smith to William Pulteney, written in 1772, from which he thinks it probable that the work lay "unnrevised and unaltered" in the author's desk for four years. A similar conclusion seems to follow from a letter of Hume in Burton's Life, ii. p. 461.

170-2 A story was told by Sir Walter Scott, and is also related in the Edinburgh Review, of an " unfortunate rencontre," arising out of the publication of the same letter, between Smith and Dr Johnson, during the visit of the latter to Glasgow. The same story is given in a note in Wilberforce's Correspondence, the scene being somewhat vaguely laid in " Scotland." But it is impossible that it should be true ; for Johnson made his tour in 1773, whilst Hume's death did not take place till 1776. Smith seems not to have met Johnson in Scotland at all. It appears, however, from Boswell's Life, under date of 29th April 1778, that Johnson had on one occasion quarrelled with Smith and treated him rudely at Strahan's house, apparently in London ; but, as Robertson met Johnson " for the first time " immediately after that incident, and as we know that Robertson met him in Scotland, it follows that the " unlucky altercation " at Strahan's must have occurred before the Scotch tour, and could have had nothing to do with the letter on Hume's death.

170-3 An interesting letter of Smith to Dundas (1st November 1779) ou free trade for Ireland is printed in the Eng. Hist. Review, No. 2.

The above article was written by: J. K. Ingram, LL.D.

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