ADAM SMITH, the celebrated author of the Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, was the only son of Adam Smith, comptroller of the customs at Kirkaldy, in Scotland, where he was born June 5, 1723, a few months after the death of his father. He was originally of an infirm and sickly constitution, and being thus precluded from more active amusements, had his natural turn for books and studious pleasures very early confirmed in his mind. At three years of age he was stolen by vagrants, but was happily recovered, and preserved to be one of the ornaments of the learned world, and the great improver of commercial science. His education was begun at a school in Kirkaldy, and continued at the university of Glasgow, to which he went in 1737, and remained there till 1740, when he removed to Baliol college, Oxford, as an exhibitioner, on Snell's foundation. The studies to which he first attached himself at Glasgow, were mathematics and natural philosophy; these, however, did not long divert him from pursuits more congenial to his mind. The study of human nature in all its branches, more particularly of the political history of mankind, opened a boundless field to his curiosity and ambition; and while it afforded scope to all the various powers of his versatile and comprehensive genius, gratified his ruling passion of contributing to the happiness and improvement of society.
To this study, diversified by polite literature, be seems to have devoted himself after his removal from Oxford. It may be presumed, that the lectures of the profound and eloquent Dr. Hutcheson, which he attended before he left Glasgow, had a considerable effect in directing his talents to their proper objects. It was also at this period of his life that he cultivated with the greatest care the study of languages. He had been originally destined for the church of England, and with that view was sent to Oxford, but, after seven years' residence there, not finding all inclination for that profession, he returned to Scotland and to his mother.
In 1751 Mr. Smith was elected professor of logic in the university of Glasgow; and the year following, upon the death of Mr. Cragie, the immediate successor of Dr. Hutcheson, he was removed to the professorship of moral philosophy in that university. His lectures in both these professorships were of the most masterly kind, but no part of them has been preserved, except what he himself published in his two principal works. A general sketch of his lectures has indeed been given by his biographer, in the words of one of his pupils, from which it appears that his lectures on logic were at once original and profound. His course of moral philosophy consisted of four parts; the first contained natural theology, or the proofs of the Being and Attributes of God; the second comprehended ethics, strictly so called, and consisted chiefly of the doctrines which he published afterwards in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. In the third part he treated more at length of that branch of morality which relates to justice. This also he intended to give to the public; but this intention, which is mentioned in the conclusion of the Theory of Moral Sentiments, he did not live to fulfil. In the fourth and last part of his lectures he examined those political regulations which are founded, not upon the principle of justice, but of expediency. Under this view be considered the political institutions relating to commerce, to finances, to ecclesiastical and military establishments. What he delivered on these subjects formed the substance of the work which he afterwards published under the title of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. There was no situation in which his abilities appeared to greater advantage than that of a professor. In delivering his lectures he trusted almost entirely to extemporary elocution. His manner, though not graceful, was plain and unaffected; and, as he seemed to be always interested in his subject, he never failed to interest his hearers. His reputation was accordingly raised very high, and a multitude of students from a great distance resorted to the university of Glasgow merely on his account.
It does not appear that he made any public trial of his powers as a writer before the year 1755, when he furnished some criticisms on Johnson's Dictionary, to a periodical work called The Edinburgh Review, which was then begun, but was not carried on beyond two numbers. In 1759 he first published his Theory of Moral Sentiments, to which he afterwards subjoined A Dissertation on the Origin of Languages, and on the different Genius of those which are original and compounded.
After the publication of this work, Dr. Smith remained four years at Glasgow, discharging his official duties with increasing reputation. Towards the end of 1763 he received an invitation from Mr. Charles Townsend to accompany the duke of Buccleugh on his travels; and the liberal terms of the proposal, added to a strong desire of visiting the continent of Europe, induced him to resign his professorship at Glasgow. Early in the year 1764 he joined the duke of Buccleugh in London, and in March set out with him for the continent. Sir James Macdonald, afterwards so justly lamented by Dr. Smith and many other distinguished persons, as a young man of the highest accomplishments and virtues, met them at Dover. After a few days passed at Paris, they settled for eighteen months at Thoulouse, and then took a tour through the south of France to Geneva, where they passed two months. About Christmas 1765 they returned to Paris, and there remained till the October following, By the recommendations of David Hume, with whom Dr. Smith had been united in strict friendship from the year 1752, they were introduced to the society of the first wits in France, but who were also unhappily the most notorious deists. The biographer of Dr. A. Smith has told us, in the words of the duke of Buccleugh himself, that he and his noble pupil lived together in the most uninterrupted harmony during the three years of their travels; and that their friendship continued to the end of Dr. Smith's life, whose loss was then sincerely regretted by the survivor.
The next ten years of Dr. A. Smith's life were passed in a retirement which formed a striking contrast to his late migrations. With the exception of a few visits to Edinburgh and London, he passed the whole of this period with his mother at Kirkaldy, occupied habitually in intense study. His friend Hume, who considered a town as the true scene for a man of letters, in vain-attempted to seduce him from his retirement; till at length, in the beginning of 1776, he accounted for his long retreat by the publication of his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 2 vols. 4to. This book is well known as the most profound and perspicuous dissertation of its kind that the world has ever seen. About two years after the publication of this work the author was appointed one of the commissioners of the customs in Scotland. The greater part of these two years he passed in London, in a society too extensive and varied to allow him much time for study. In consequence of his new appointment, he returned in 1778 to Edinburgh, where he enjoyed the last twelve years of his life to affluence, and among the companions of his youth. "During the first years of his residence in Edinburgh," says his biographer, "his studies seemed to be entirely suspended; and his passion for letters served only to amuse his leisure and to animate his conversation. The infirmities of age, of which he very early began to feel the approaches, reminded him at last, when it was too late, of what he yet owed to the public and to his own fame. The principal materials of the works which he had announced had long ago been collected, and little probably was wanting, but a few years of health and retirement, to bestow on them that systematical arrangement in which he delighted; and the ornaments of that flowing, and apparently artless style, which he had studiously cultivated, but which, after all his experience and composition, he adjusted with extreme difficulty to his own taste." The death of his mother in 1784, who, to an extreme old age, had possessed her faculties unimpaired, with a considerable degree of health, and that of a cousin, who had assisted in superintending his household, in 1788, contributed to frustrate his projects. Though he bore his losses with firmness, his health and spirits gradually declined, and, in July 1790, he died of a chronic obstruction in his bowels, which had been lingering and painful. A few days before his death he gave orders to destroy all his manuscripts, with the exception of some detached essays, which he left to the care of his executors, and which have since been published in one volume 4to, in 1795.
Of his intellectual gifts and attainments, of the originality and comprehensiveness of his views, the extent, variety, and correctness of his information, the fertility of his invention, and the ornaments which his rich imagination had borrowed from classical culture, Dr. A. Smith has left behind him lasting monuments. To his private worth the most certain of all testimonies may be found in that confidence, respect, and attachment, which followed him through the various relations of life. With all his talents, however, he is acknowledged not to have been fitted for the general commerce of the world, or the business of active life. His habitual abstraction of thought rendered him inattentive to common objects, and he frequently exhibited instances of absence, which have scarcely been surpassed by the fancy of Addison or La Bruyere. Even in his childhood this habit began to shew itself. In his external form and appearance there was nothing uncommon. He never sat for his picture; but a medallion, executed by Tassie, conveys an exact idea of his profile, and of the general expression of his countenance. The valuable library which he had collected was bequeathed, with the rest of his property, to his cousin, Mr. David Douglas.
One thing, however, is much to be regretted, in the life of Dr. A. Smith, of which his biographer has not thought fit to take the smallest notice; and that is his infidelity. When his friend Hume died, he published the life which that celebrated sceptic had written of himself; with such remarks as proved, but too plainly, that his sentiments on the subject of religion were nearly the same with those of the deceased. This publication, which apparently was intended to strike a powerful blow against Christianity, and to give proportionable support to the cause of deism, produced an anonymous letter to Dr. A. Smith from the Clarendon press; which was afterwards known to have proceeded from the pen of Dr. Home. In this celebrated letter, the argument is so clear, and the humour so easy and natural, that it produces an effect which no one but a determined infidel can resist or resent. Dr. A. Smith had assumed an air of great solemnity in his defence of his friend Hume; but the author of the letter treats them both with a jocularity which has wonderful force. He alludes to certain anecdotes concerning Hume, which are very inconsistent with the account given in his life: for at the very period when he is reported to have been in the utmost tranquillity of spirits, none of his friends could venture to mention Dr. Beattie in his presence, "lest it should throw him into a fit of passion and swearing." From whatever unfortunate cause this bias in Dr. Adam Smith's mind arose, whether from his intimacy with Hume, from his too earnest desire to account for every thing metaphysically, or from a subsequent intercourse with the infidel wits and philosophers of France, it is much to be regretted, as the only material stain upon a character of much excellence.