1790 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Adam Smith

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine 60 (July, August 1790) 673, 761-63.



At Edinburgh, Adam Smith, esq. LL.D. and F.R.S. of London and Edinburgh, and formerly professor of moral philosophy in the University of Glasgow, which he gave up to travel with the present Duke of Buccleugh. In 1759 he published The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 8vo.; and in 1776, The Wealth of Nations, 2 vols, 4to. a work which is held in the highest estimation, having been quoted both in the Parliament of Great Britain and in the National Assembly of France, and contributed to that spirit of liberty which at present so much prevails. It was to this book, which gave the first hint of the commercial treaty with France, that he owed his appointment in the customs of Scotland, which was given him, unsolicited, by Lord North, as an acknowledgment of the information his Lordship had received in the perusal of it....

Dr. Adam Smith was born in 1723, and educated at Glasgow College; whence he was sent, in 1743-45, an exhibitioner to Baliol College, Oxford. Being in his youth a hard student, and of a cachectic habit, his appearance was ungracious, and his address aukward. His frequent absence of mind gave him an air of vacancy, and even of stupidity; and the first day he dined at Baliol College, a servitor, seeing him neglect his dinner, desired him to "fall to, for he had never seen such a piece of beef in Scotland." The Doctor, who, in his latter days, lived hospitably at Edinburgh, used always to smile when he saw a similar piece of beef smoke upon his table; and when asked to interpret his smile, always related the abovementioned circumstance. — The illiberality with which he thought himself treated at Baliol College drove him to retirement, and retirement fortified his love of study. When the time of his residence at Oxford expired, the question arose, what line he was then to pursue? He was destitute of patrimony, and had not any turn for business. The church seemed an improper profession, because he had early become a disciple of Voltaire's in matters of religion. His friends wished to send him abroad as a travelling tutor; but though well qualified in point of learning, and morals, his want of knowledge of the world, and something very particular in his appearance and address, long prevented him from meeting with an offer of any employment of that kind. The "res angusta domi" not brooking longer delay, he determined to turn his talents to some account; and therefore, about the year 1750, opened a class for teaching rhetorick at Edinburgh; from which place he was soon called to be professor, first of logick, and then of moral philosophy, in the University of Glasgow. In this employment Dr. Smith's English education gave him great advantages. His pronunciation and his style were much superior to what could, at that time, be acquired in Scotland only. His stock of classical learning, though inferior to that of his predecessor, the excellent Dr. Hutcheson, yet much exceeded the usual standard of Scotch universities. He had, besides, read, meditated, and digested, the works of those afterwards styled the French Encylopedists, and admired David Hume "as by far the greatest philosopher that the world had ever produced;" at the same time that he spoke of Dr. Johnson, in his rhetorical lectures, nearly in the following words: "of all writers, antient or modern, he that keeps off the greatest distance from common sense is Dr. Samuel Johnson." — Such opinions, or rather prejudices, which then prevailed very generally in Scotland, being embraced by a man from whose English education they could not naturally have been expected, conspired with Dr. Smith's merit in rendering him a very fashionable professor. The College was torn by parties, and Dr. S. embraced that side which was most popular among the people of the town, among which he was well received, and from whose conversation, particularly that of Mr. Glassford, he learned many facts necessary for improving his lectures; for, living in a great commercial town, he had converted the chair of moral philosophy into a professorship of trade and finance. Before effecting this revolution, he had published his ingenious but fanciful theory of moral sentiments, which he continued to read to his pupils during a few weeks at the beginning of the term; the rest of the session, as it is called in Scotland, which lasts for eight months, being destined to the subjects abovementioned. A man who is continually going over the same ground will naturally smooth it. Dr. S's lectures gradually acquired greater improvement and higher celebrity; and the Right Hon. Charles Townshend, who had married the Lady Dalkeith, was, in his journey to Scotland, attracted to Glasgow by the reputation of Dr. Smith, whom he engaged, by very liberal terms, to resign his professorship, and to undertake the office of travelling tutor to the young Duke of Buccleugh. While Mr. Townshend was at Glasgow, the Doctor conducted him to see the different manufactures of the place, and particularly a very flourishing tan-work. They were standing on a plank, which had been laid across the tanning pit; the Doctor, who was talking warmly on is favourite topic, the division of labour, forgetting the precarious ground on which he stood, plunged headlong into the nauseous pool. He was dragged out, stripped, and covered with blankets, and conveyed home in a sedan chair, where, having recovered the shock of this unexpected cold bath, he complained bitterly that he must leave life, with all his affairs, in the greatest disorder; which was considered as affectation, because his transactions had been few, and his fortune was nothing. — A circumstance which did him more credit was, that, before going to travel with the Duke of Buccleugh, he requested all his students to attend on a particular day; ordered the censor of the week to call over their names; and as each name occurred, returned the several sums which he had received as fees; saying, that, as he had not completely fulfilled his engagement, he was resolved that his class should be taught that year gratis, and that the remainder of his lectures should be read by one of the upper students. This accordingly took place, though the Doctor was in general extremely jealous of the property of his lectures; and, fearful lest they should be transcribed and published, used often to repeat, when he saw any one taking notes, that "he hated scribblers." He travelled with the Duke two years, and soon after his return, published the substance of his lectures in his justly celebrated work on the nature and causes of national wealth. — Being appointed, by the interest of his Grace and Ld. Loughborough, one of the commissioners of the customs in Scotland, he generously offered to resign the annuity of £300 per annum, which had been granted him for directing the Duke's education and travels; but which resignation, as he might easily have conjectured, his Grace as generously refused. His book was not at first so popular as it afterwards became. One of the first things that set it afloat was an observation of Mr. Fox's in the House of Commons: "As my learned friend Dr. Adam Smith says, the way for a nation, as well as for an individual, to be rich, is for both to live within their income." The remark, surely, is not profound, but the recommendation of Mr. Fox raised the sale of the book; and the circumstances of the country, our wars, debts, taxes, &c. arrested attention to a work where such subjects are treated, subjects that unfortunately have become too popular in most countries of Europe. — Dr. Smith's system of political oeconomy is not essentially different from those of Count Verri, Dean Tucker, and Mr. Hume; his illustrations are chiefly borrowed from the valuable French collection "sur les arts metiers"; but his arrangement is his own: and as he has carried his doctrines to a greater length, and fortified them with stronger proofs, than any of his predecessors, he deserves the chief praise, or the chief blame, of propagating a system which tends to confound national wealth with national prosperity.