Front Page Titles (by Subject) ADAM SMITH AS A PERSON. (1876.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 7 (Economic Studies and Essays)
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ADAM SMITH AS A PERSON. (1876.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 7 (Economic Studies and Essays) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 7.
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ADAM SMITH AS A PERSON.
Of Adam Smith’s Political Economy almost an infinite quantity has been said, but very little has been said as to Adam Smith himself. And yet not only was he one of the most curious of human beings, but his books can hardly be understood without having some notion of what manner of man he was. There certainly are economical treatises that go straight on, and that might have been written by a calculating machine. But The Wealth of Nations is not one of these. Any one who would explain what is in it, and what is not in it, must apply the “historical method,” and state what was the experience of its author and how he worked up that experience. Perhaps, therefore, now that there is a sort of centenary of Adam Smith, it may not be amiss to give a slight sketch of him and of his life, and especially of the peculiar points in them that led him to write the book which still in its effects, even more than in its theory, occupies mankind.
The founder of the science of business was one of the most unbusinesslike of mankind. He was an awkward Scotch professor, apparently choked with books and absorbed in abstractions. He was never engaged in any sort of trade, and would probably never have made sixpence by any if he had been. His absence of mind was amazing. On one occasion, having to sign his name to an official document, he produced not his own signature, but an elaborate imitation of the signature of the person who signed before him; on another, a sentinel on duty having saluted him in military fashion, he astounded and offended the man by acknowledging it with a copy—a very clumsy copy, no doubt—of the same gestures. And Lord Brougham preserves other similar traditions. “It is related,” he says, “by old people in Edinburgh that while he moved through the Fishmarket in his accustomed attitude—that is with his hands behind his back, and his head in the air—a female of the trade exclaimed, taking him for an idiot broken loose, “Hech, sirs, to see the like o’ him to be aboot. And yet he is weel eneugh put on” (dressed). It was often so too in society. Once, during a dinner at Dalkeith, he broke out into a lecture on some politics of the day, and was bestowing a variety of severe epithets on a statesman, when he suddenly perceived the nearest relative of the politician he was criticising, sitting opposite, and stopped; but he was heard to go on muttering, “Deil care, Deil care, it’s all true”. And these are only specimens of a crowd of anecdotes.
The wonder that such a man should have composed The Wealth of Nations, which shows so profound a knowledge of the real occupations of mankind, is enhanced by the mode in which it was written. It was not the exclusive product of a lifelong study, such as an absent man might, while in seeming abstraction, be really making of the affairs of the world. On the contrary, it was in the mind of its author only one of many books, or rather a single part of a great book, which he intended to write. A vast scheme floated before him, much like the dream of the late Mr. Buckle as to a History of Civilisation, and he spent his life accordingly, in studying the origin and progress of the sciences, the laws, the politics, and all the other aids and forces which have raised man from the savage to the civilised state. The plan of Adam Smith was indeed more comprehensive even than this. He wanted to trace not only the progress of the race, but also of the individual; he wanted to show how each man being born (as he thought) with few faculties, came to attain to many and great faculties. He wanted to answer the question, how did man—race or individual—come to be what he is? These immense dreams are among the commonest phenomena of literary history; and, as a rule, the vaster the intention, the less the result. The musings of the author are too miscellaneous, his studies too scattered, his attempts too incoherent, for him to think out anything valuable, or to produce anything connected. But in Adam Smith’s case the very contrary is true; he produced an enduring particular result in consequence of a comprehensive and diffused ambition. He discovered the laws of wealth in looking for “the natural progress of opulence”; and he investigated the progress of opulence as part of the growth and progress of all things.
The best way to get a distinct notion of Adam Smith’s scheme is to look at the other works which he published besides The Wealth of Nations. The greatest, and the one which made his original reputation, was The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which he builds up the whole moral nature of man out of a single primitive emotion—sympathy; and in which he gives a history of ethical philosophy besides. With this are commonly bound up Some Considerations concerning the first Formation of Languages, which discuss how “two savages who had never been taught to speak, but had been bred up remote from the society of man, would naturally begin their converse”. Then there is a very curious History of Astronomy, left imperfect; and another fragment on the History of Ancient Physics, which is a kind of sequel to that part of the History of Astronomy which relates to the ancient astronomy; then a similar essay on Ancient Logic and Metaphysics; then another on the nature and development of the Fine—or, as he calls them, The Imitative Arts—Painting, Poetry, and Music, in which was meant to have been included a history of the Theatre—all forming part, his executors tell us, “of a plan he had once formed for giving a connected history of the liberal and elegant arts”. And he destroyed before his death the remains of the book, Lectures on Justice, “in which,” we are told by a student who heard them, “he followed Montesquieu in 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 correspondent alterations in law and government”; or, as he himself announces it at the conclusion of The Moral Sentiments, “another discourse” in which he designs “to endeavour to give an account of the general principles of law and government, and of the different revolutions they have undergone in the different ages and periods of society, not only in what concerns justice, but in what concerns police, revenue, and arms, and whatever else is the subject of law”. Scarcely any philosopher has imagined a vaster dream.
Undoubtedly it is a great literary marvel that so huge a scheme, on so many abstract subjects, should have produced anything valuable, and still more so that it should have produced what has been for a whole century a fundamental book on trade and money—at first sight, the least fit for a secluded man to treat at all, and which, if he did treat of them, would seem more than any other to require from him an absorbed and exclusive attention. A little study of the life of Adam Smith, however, in some degree lessens the wonder; because it shows how in the course of his universal studies he came to meet with this particular train of thought, and how he came to be able to pursue it effectually.
Adam Smith was born early in the first half of the eighteenth century, at Kirkcaldy in Scotland, on 5th June, 1713. His father died before he was born; but his mother, who is said to have been a woman of unusual energy and ability, lived to be very old, and to see her son at the height of his reputation as a philosopher. He was educated at school in the usual Scotch way, and at the University of Glasgow; and at both he is said, doubtless truly, to have shown an unusual facility of acquisition, and an unusual interest in books and study. As we should also expect, a very strong memory, which he retained till the last, showed itself very early. Nothing, however, is known with precision as to the amount of knowledge he acquired in Scotland, nor as to his place among his contemporaries. The examination system, which nowadays in England discriminates both so accurately, has in Scotland never been equally developed, and in Adam Smith’s time had never been heard of there at all.
His exceptional training begins at the next stage. There is at the University of Glasgow a certain endowment called the Snell exhibition, after the name of its founder, which enables the students selected for it to study for some years at the University of Oxford. Of these exhibitioners Adam Smith became one, and as such studied at Oxford for as many as seven years. As might be expected, he gave the worst account of the state of the university at that time. In the sketch of the history of education which forms so odd an episode in The Wealth of Nations, he shows perpetually that he thought the system which he had seen at Oxford exceedingly bad, and its government excessively corrupt. “If,” he says, “the authority to which a teacher is subject resides in the body corporate of the college or university of which he is himself a member, and in which the greater part of the other members are, like himself, persons who either are or ought to be teachers, they are likely to make a common cause, to be all very indulgent to one another, and every man to consent that his neighbour may neglect his duty, provided he is himself allowed to neglect his own. In the University of Oxford the greater part of the public professors have for these many years given up altogether even the pretence of teaching.” And he adds, “In England, the public schools are much less corrupted than the universities. In the schools, the youths are taught, or at least may be taught, Greek and Latin. That is everything which the masters pretend to teach, or which it is expected they should teach. In the universities, the youth neither are taught, nor can always find the means of being taught, the sciences which it is the business of these incorporated bodies to teach.” And he retained through life a fixed belief that endowments for education tended only to the “ease” of the teacher, and not to the advantage of the learner. But though he says he had the means of learning little at Oxford, he certainly, in fact, learnt much. “Greek,” as Sydney Smith says, “never crossed the Tweed in any force”; but Adam Smith incessantly shows a real familiarity with Greek books and a sound accumulation of Greek learning. Very likely his erudition would not bear much comparison with what is now carried away from Balliol. If we compare him with a more recent Snell exhibitioner, Sir William Hamilton, we shall see that Greek teaching has enormously advanced in the time between them; but, on the other hand, if we compare Adam Smith with Scotch philosophers of purely Scotch education, say with Reid or Hume, we cannot help seeing that his acquaintance with Greek things belongs, both in quantity and in quality, to an order altogether superior to theirs.
For the vast works which Adam Smith contemplated, a sound knowledge of Greek was, as he must have felt, far more necessary than any other kind of knowledge. The beginnings of nine-tenths of all philosophy are to be found there, and the rudiments of many other things. But for the purpose of the great task which he actually performed, Adam Smith learned at Oxford something much more valuable than Greek. He acquired there a kind of knowledge and sympathy with England, in which the other eminent Scotchmen—especially literary Scotchmen—of his time were often very deficient. At that time the recollection of the old rivalry between the two countries had by no means died away; there was still a separate Scotch philosophy, and a separate literature; and when it happened, as it perpetually did, that Scotch writers were not thought so much of in England as they thought they ought to be, they were apt to impute their discredit to English prejudice, and to appeal to France and Paris to correct the error. Half Hume’s mind, or more than half, was distorted by his hatred of England and his love of France. He often could not speak of English things with tolerable temper, and he always viewed French ones with extravagant admiration. Whether Adam Smith altogether liked this country may perhaps be doubted—Englishmen then hated Scotchmen so much—but he had no kind of antagonism to her, and quite understood that in most economical respects she was then exceedingly superior to France. And this exceptional sympathy and knowledge we may fairly ascribe to a long and pleasant residence in England. For his great work no qualification was more necessary; The Wealth of Nations would have been utterly spoiled if he had tried (as Hume incessantly would have tried) to show that, in industrial respects, England might not be better than France, or at any rate was not so very much better.
The Snell foundation at Oxford has often been an avenue to the English Church, and it seems to have been intended that Adam Smith should use it as such. The only anecdote which remains of his college life may be a clue to his reasons for not doing so. He is said to have been found by his tutor in the act of reading Hume’s Philosophical Essays, then lately published, and to have been reproved for it. And it is certain that any one who at all sympathised with Hume’s teaching in that book would have felt exceedingly little sympathy with the formularies of the Church of England, even as they were understood in the very Broad Church of that age. At any rate, for some reason or other, Adam Smith disappointed the wishes of his friends, gave up all idea of entering the Church of England, and returned to Scotland without fixed outlook or employment. He resided, we are told, two years with his mother, studying no doubt, but earning nothing, and visibly employed in nothing. In England such a career would probably have ended in his writing for the booksellers, a fate of which he speaks in The Wealth of Nations with contempt. But in Scotland there was a much better opening for philosophers. The Scotch universities had then, as now, several professorships very fairly paid, and very fairly distributed. The educated world in Scotland was probably stronger a century ago than it ever was before or since. The Union with England had removed the aristocracy of birth which overshadowed it before, and commerce had not yet created the aristocracy of wealth which overshadows it now. Philosophical merit had therefore then in Scotland an excellent chance of being far better rewarded than it usually is in the world. There were educated people who cared for philosophy, and these people had prizes to give away. One of those prizes Adam Smith soon obtained. He read lectures, we are told, under the patronage of Lord Kames, an eminent lawyer, who wrote books on philosophy that are still quoted, and who was no doubt deeply interested in Adam Smith’s plans of books on the origin and growth of all arts and sciences, as these were the topics which he himself studied and handled. Contrary to what might have been expected, these lectures were very successful. Though silent and awkward in social life, Adam Smith possessed in considerable perfection the peculiarly Scotch gift of abstract oratory. Even in common conversation, when once moved he expounded his favourite ideas very admirably. As a teacher in public he did even better: he wrote almost nothing, and though at the beginning of a lecture he often hesitated, we are told, and seemed “not sufficiently possessed of the subject,” yet in a minute or two he became fluent, and poured out an interesting series of animated arguments. Commonly, indeed, the silent man, whose brain is loaded with unexpressed ideas, is more likely to be a successful public speaker than the brilliant talker who daily exhausts himself in sharp sayings. Adam Smith acquired great reputation as a lecturer, and in consequence obtained two of the best prizes then given to philosophers in Scotland—first the professorship of logic, and then that of moral philosophy, in the University of Glasgow.
The rules, or at any rate the practice, of the Scotch universities, seem at that time to have allowed a professor in either of these chairs great latitude in the choice of his subject. Adam Smith during his first year lectured on rhetoric and belles lettres “instead of on logic,” and in the chair of moral philosophy he expounded, besides the theory of duty, a great scheme of social evolution. The beginnings of The Wealth of Nations made part of the course, but only as a fragment of the immense design of showing the origin and development of cultivation and law; or, as we may perhaps put it, not inappropriately, of saying how, from being a savage, man rose to be a Scotchman. This course of lectures seems to have been specially successful. So high, we are told, was his reputation as a professor, “that a multitude of students from a great distance resorted to the university merely upon his account. Those branches of science which he taught became fashionable” in the city, “and his opinions were the chief topics of discussion in clubs and literary societies. Even the small peculiarities of his pronunciation and manner of speaking became frequently the objects of imitation.” This is the partial recollection of an attached pupil in distant years;—it may be over-coloured a little—but even after a fair abatement it is certainly the record of a great temporary triumph and local success.
That the greater part of the lectures can have been of much intrinsic merit it is not now easy to believe. An historical account “of the general principles of law and government, and of the different revolutions which they have undergone in the different ages and periods of society,” would be too great a task for a great scholar of the ripest years and with all the accumulated materials of the present time, and it was altogether beyond the strength of a young man a century ago;—not to say that he combined it with an account of the origin of the moral faculties, a theory of belles lettres, and other matters. The delivery of that part of the course which was concerned with wealth and revenue may have been useful to him, because it compelled him to bring his ideas on those subjects into a distinct form. Otherwise, being a bookish man, he might have been too absorbed in bookish matters, and neglected what can only be taught by life for that which is already to be learned from literature. But at the time this was only a minor merit;—the main design of the lectures was only an impossible aim at an unbounded task.
So complex, however, is life, that this Scotch professorship, though in a superficial view wasteful, and likely to exhaust and hurt his mind by demanding the constant efflux of inferior matter, was, nevertheless, on the whole, exceedingly useful. It not only induced him to study as a part of his vast scheme the particular phenomena of wealth, but it gave him an excellent opportunity of seeing those phenomena and of learning how to explain them. It was situated at Glasgow; and Glasgow, though a petty place in comparison with its present magnitude, was nevertheless a considerable mercantile place according to the notions of those times. The Union with England had opened to it the trade with our West Indian colonies, as well as with the rest of the English empire, and it had in consequence grown rapidly and made large profits. That its size was small, as we should think now, was to a learner rather an aid than a disadvantage. A small commerce is more easily seen than an immense one; that of Liverpool or London is now so vast that it terrifies more than excites the imagination. And a small commerce, if varied, has almost as much to teach as a large one; the elements are the same though the figures are smaller, and the less the figures the easier are they to combine. An inspection of Liverpool now would not teach much more than an inspection of Glasgow a hundred years ago, and the lessons of modern Liverpool would be much more difficult to learn. But the mere sight of the phenomena of Glasgow commerce was but a small part of the advantage to Adam Smith of a residence at Glasgow. The most characteristic and most valuable tenets of Adam Smith are, when examined, by no means of a very abstract and recondite sort. We are, indeed, in this generation not fully able to appreciate the difficulty of arriving at them. We have been bred up upon them; our disposition is more to wonder how any one could help seeing them, than to appreciate the effort of discovering them. Experience shows that many of them—the doctrine of Free Trade for example—are very uncongenial to the untaught human mind. On political economy the English-speaking race is undoubtedly the best instructed part of mankind; and, nevertheless, in the United States and in every English-speaking colony, Protection is the firm creed of the ruling classes, and Free Trade is but a heresy. We must not fancy that any of the main doctrines of Adam Smith were very easily arrived at by him because they seem very obvious to us. But, on the other hand, although such doctrines as his are too opposed to many interests and to many first impressions to establish themselves easily as a dominant creed, they are quite within the reach and quite congenial to the taste of an intelligent dissenting minority. There was a whole race of mercantile Free Traders long before Adam Smith was born; in his time the doctrine was in the air; it was not accepted or established;—on the contrary, it was a tenet against which a respectable parent would probably caution his son;—still it was known as a tempting heresy, and one against which a warning was needed. In Glasgow there were doubtless many heretics. Probably in consequence of the firm belief in a rigid theology, and of the incessant discussion of its technical tenets, there has long been, and there is still, in the South of Scotland, a strong tendency to abstract argument quite unknown in England. Englishmen have been sometimes laughing at it, and sometimes gravely criticising it for several generations: Mr. Buckle wrote half a volume on it: Sydney Smith alleged that he heard a Scotch girl answer in a quadrille, “But, my lord, as to what ye were saying as to love in the aibstract,” and so on. Yet, in spite both of ridicule and argument, the passion for doctrine is still strong in southern Scotland, and it will take many years more to root it out. At Glasgow in Adam Smith’s time it had no doubt very great influence; a certain number of hard-headed merchants were believers in Free Trade and kindred tenets. One of these is still by chance known to us. Dr. Carlyle, whom Mr. Gladstone not unhappily described as a “gentleman clergyman” of the Church of Scotland, tells us of a certain Provost Cochrane, to whom Adam Smith always acknowledged his obligations, and who was the founder and leading member of a club “in which the express design was to inquire into the nature and principles of trade in all its branches, and to communicate their knowledge on that subject to each other”. From this club Adam Smith not only learned much which he would never have found in any book, but also in part perhaps acquired the influential and so to say practical way of explaining things which so much distinguishes The Wealth of Nations. Mr. Mill says he learned from his intercourse with East India directors the habit of looking for, and the art of discovering, “the mode of putting a thought which gives it easiest admittance into minds not prepared for it by habit!” and Adam Smith probably gained something of this sort by living with the Glasgow merchants, for no other book written by a learned professor shows anything like the same power of expressing and illustrating arguments in a way likely to influence minds like theirs. And it is mainly by his systematic cultivation of this borderland between theory and practice that Adam Smith attained his preeminent place and influence.
But this usefulness of his Scotch professorship was only in the distant future. It was something for posterity to detect, but it could not have been known at the time. The only pages of his professorial work which Adam Smith then gave to the public were his lectures on Moral Philosophy, in what an Englishman would consider its more legitimate sense. These formed the once celebrated Theory of Moral Sentiments, which, though we should now think them rather pompous, were then much praised and much read. For a great part, indeed, of Adam Smith’s life they constituted his main title to reputation. The Wealth of Nations was not published till seventeen years later; he wrote nothing else of any importance in the interval, and it is now curious to find that when The Wealth of Nations was published, many good judges thought it not so good as The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and that the author himself was by no means certain they were not right.
The Theory of Moral Sentiments was, indeed, for many years, exceedingly praised. One sect of philosophers praised it, as it seems to me, because they were glad of a celebrated ally, and another because they were glad of a celebrated opponent: the first said, “See that so great an authority as Adam Smith concurs with us”; and the second replied, “But see how very weak his arguments are; if so able an arguer as Adam Smith can say so little for your doctrines, how destitute of argumentative grounds those doctrines must be”. Several works in the history of philosophy have had a similar fate. But a mere student of philosophy who cares for no sect, and wants only to know the truth, will nowadays, I think, find little to interest him in this celebrated book. In Adam Smith’s mind, as I have said before, it was part of a whole; he wanted to begin with the origin of the faculties of each man, and then build up that man—just as he wished to arrive at the origin of human society, and then build up society. His Theory of Moral Sentiments builds them all out of one source, sympathy, and in this way he has obtained praise from friends and enemies. His friends are the school of “moral sense” thinkers, because he is on their side, and believes in a special moral faculty, which he laboriously constructs from sympathy; his enemies are the Utilitarian school, who believe in no such special faculty, and who set themselves to show that his labour has been in vain, and that no such faculty has been so built up. One party says the book is good to gain authority for the conclusion, and the other that you may gain credit by refuting its arguments. For unquestionably its arguments are very weak, and attractive to refutation. If the intuitive school had had no better grounds than these, the Utilitarians would have vanquished them ages since. There is a fundamental difficulty in founding morals on sympathy; an obvious confusion of two familiar sentiments. We often sympathise where we cannot approve, and approve where we cannot sympathise. The special vice of party spirit is that it effaces the distinction between the two; we sympathise with our party, till we approve its actions. There is a story of a Radical wit in the last century who was standing for Parliament, and his opponent, of course a Tory, objected that he was always against the king whether right or wrong, upon which the wit retorted that on his own showing the Tory was exposed to equal objection, since he was always for the king whether right or wrong. And so it will always be. Even the wisest party men more or less sympathise with the errors of their own side; they would be powerless if they did not do so; they would gain no influence if they were not of like passions with those near them. Adam Smith could not help being aware of this obvious objection; he was far too able a reasoner to elaborate a theory without foreseeing what would be said against it. But the way in which he tries to meet the objection only shows that the objection is invincible. He sets up a supplementary theory—a little epicycle—that the sympathy which is to test good morals must be the sympathy of an “impartial spectator”. But, then, who is to watch the watchman? Who is to say when the spectator is impartial, and when he is not? If he sympathises with one side, the other will always say that he is partial. As a moralist, the supposed spectator must warmly approve good actions and warmly disapprove bad actions; as an impartial person, he must never do either the one or the other. He is a fiction of inconsistent halves; if he sympathises he is not impartial, and if he is impartial he does not sympathise. The radical vice of the theory is shown by its requiring this accessory invention of a being both hot and cold, because the essence of the theory is to identify the passion which loves with the sentiment which approves.
But although we may now believe The Theory of MoralSentiments to be of inconsiderable philosophical value, and though it would at first sight seem very little likely to contribute to the production of The Wealth of Nations, yet it was, in fact, in a curious way most useful to it. The education of young noblemen has always been a difficulty in the world, and many schemes have been invented to meet it. In Scotland, a hundred years ago, the most fashionable way was to send them to travel in Europe, and to send with them some scholar of repute to look after their morals and to superintend their general education. The guardians of the great border nobleman, the Duke of Buccleuch, were in want of such a tutor to take him such a tour, and it seems to have struck them that Adam Smith was the very person adapted for the purpose. To all appearance an odder selection could hardly have been made. Adam Smith was, as we have seen, the most absent-minded of men, an awkward Scotch professor, and he was utterly unacquainted with the Continent. He had never crossed the English Channel in his life, and if he had been left to himself would probably never have done so. But one of the guardians was Charles Townshend, who had married the young duke’s mother. He was not much unlike Mr. Disraeli in character, and had great influence at that time. He read The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and Hume writes to Adam Smith: “Charles Townshend, who passes for the cleverest fellow in England, is so taken with the performance, that he said to Oswald he would put the duke under the author’s care and would make it worth his while to accept of that charge. As soon as I heard this, I called on him twice with a view of talking with him about the matter, and of convincing him of the propriety of sending that young nobleman to Glasgow; for I could not hope that he could offer you any terms which would tempt you to renounce your professorship. But I missed him. Mr. Townshend passes for being a little uncertain in his resolutions, so perhaps you need not build much on this sally.” Mr. Townshend was, however, this time in earnest, and the offer was made to Adam Smith. In our time there would have been an insuperable difficulty. He was a professor of great repute, they were asking him to give up a life-professorship that yielded a considerable income, and they would have hardly been able to offer him anything equally permanent. But in the eighteenth century there was a way of facilitating such arrangements that we do not now possess. The family of Buccleuch had great political influence, and Charles Townshend, the duke’s step-father, at times possessed more; and accordingly the guardians of the young duke agreed that they should pay Adam Smith £200 a year till they should get him an equal office of profit under the Crown. A person apparently more unfit for the public service could not easily have been found; but in that age of sinecures and pensions it was probably never expected that he should perform any service;—an arrangement more characteristic of the old world, and more unlike our present world, could hardly have been made. The friends of the young duke might, not unnaturally, have had some fears about it; but, in fact, for his interests, it turned out very well. Long afterwards, when Adam Smith was dead, the duke wrote: “In October, 1766, we returned to London, after having spent near three years together without the slightest disagreement or coolness; on my part with every advantage that could be expected from the society of such a man. We continued to live in friendship till the hour of his death; and I shall always remain with the impression of having lost a friend whom I loved and respected, not only for his great talents, but for every private virtue.” Very few of Charles Townshend’s caprices were as successful. Through life there was about Adam Smith a sort of lumbering bonhomie which amused and endeared him to those around him.
To Adam Smith the result was even better. If it had not been for this odd consequence of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he might have passed all his life in Scotland, delivering similar lectures and clothing very questionable theories in rather pompous words. He said in after-life that there was no better way of compelling a man to master a science than by setting him to teach it. And this may be true of the definite sciences. But nothing can be conceived worse for a man of inventive originality, than to set him to roam over huge subjects like law, morals, politics, and civilisation, particularly at a time when few good data for sound theories on such subjects are at hand for him to use. In such a position the cleverer the man, the worse are likely to be the consequences: the wider his curiosity and the more fertile his mind, the surer he is to pour out a series of gigantic conjectures of little use to himself or to any one. A one-eyed man with a taste for one subject, even at this disadvantage, may produce something good. The limitation of his mind may save him from being destroyed by his position; but a man of large interests will fail utterly. As Adam Smith had peculiarly wide interests, and as he was the very reverse of a one-eyed man, he was in special danger; and the mere removal from his professorship was to him a gain of the first magnitude. It was of cardinal importance to him to be delivered from the production of incessant words and to be brought into contact with facts and the world. And as it turned out, the caprice of Charles Townshend had a singular further felicity. It not only brought him into contact with facts and the world; but with the most suitable sort of facts, and, for his purpose, the best part of the world.
The greater part of his three years abroad was naturally spent in France. France was then by far the greatest country on the Continent. Germany was divided and had not yet risen; Spain had fallen; Italy was of little account. In one respect, indeed, France was relatively greater than even at the time of her greatest elevation, the time of the first Napoleon. The political power of the first empire was almost unbounded, but it had no intellectual power; under it Paris had ceased to be an important focus of thought and literature. The vehement rule which created the soldiers also stamped out the ideas. But under the mild government of the old régime, Paris was the principal centre of European authorship. The deficiency of the old régime in eminent soldiers and statesmen only added to the eminence of its literary men. Paris was then queen of two worlds: of that of politics by a tradition from the past, and of literature by a force and life vigorously evidenced in the present. France therefore thus attracted the main attention of all travellers who cared for the existing life of the time; Adam Smith and his pupil spent the greater part of their stay abroad there. And as a preparation for writing The Wealth of Nations he could nowhere else have been placed so well. Macaulay says that “ancient abuses and new theories” flourished together in France just before the meeting of the States-General in greater vigour than they had been seen to be combined before or since. And the description is quite as true economically as politically; on all economical matters the France of that time was a sort of museum stocked with the most important errors.
By nature then, as now, France was fitted to be a great agricultural country, a great producer and exporter of corn and wine; but her legislators for several generations had endeavoured to counteract the aim of nature, and had tried to make her a manufacturing country and an exporter of her manufactures. Like most persons in those times, they had been prodigiously impressed by the high position which the maritime powers, as they were then called (the comparatively little powers of England and Holland), were able to take in the politics of Europe. They saw that this influence came from wealth, that this wealth was made in trade and manufacture, and therefore they determined that France should not be behindhand, but should have as much trade and manufacture as possible. Accordingly, they imposed prohibitive or deterring duties on the importation of foreign manufactures; they gave bounties to the corresponding home manufactures. They tried, in opposition to the home-keeping bent of the French character, to found colonies abroad. These colonies were, according to the maxim then everywhere received, to be markets for the trade and nurseries for the commerce of the mother country;—they were mostly forbidden to manufacture for themselves, and were compelled to import all the manufactures and luxuries they required from Europe exclusively in French ships. Meanwhile, at home, agriculture was neglected. There was not even a free passage for goods from one part of the country to another. As Adam Smith himself describes it:—
“In France, the different revenue laws which exist in the different provinces require a multitude of revenue officers to surround, not only the frontiers of the kingdom, but those of almost each particular province, in order either to prevent the importation of certain goods or to subject it to the payment of certain duties, to the no small interruption of the interior commerce of the country. Some provinces are allowed to compound for the gabelle or salt-tax. Others are exempted from it altogether. Some provinces are exempted from the exclusive sale of tobacco, which the farmers-general enjoy through the greater part of the kingdom. The Aides, which correspond to the excise in England, are very different in different provinces. Some provinces are exempted from them, and pay a composition or equivalent. In those in which they take place and are in farm, there are many local duties which do not extend beyond a particular town or district. The Traites, which correspond to our customs, divide the kingdom into three great parts: first, the provinces subject to the tariff of 1664, which are called the provinces of the five great farms, and under which are comprehended Picardy, Normandy, and the greater part of the interior provinces of the kingdom; secondly, the provinces subject to the tariff of 1667, which are called the provinces reckoned foreign, and under which are comprehended the greater part of the frontier provinces; and, thirdly, those provinces which are said to be treated as foreign, or which because they are allowed a free commerce with foreign countries are in their commerce with the other provinces of France subjected to the same duties as other foreign countries. These are Alsace, the three Bishoprics of Metz, Toul and Verdun, and the three cities of Dunkirk, Bayonne, and Marseilles. Both in the provinces of the five great farms (called so on account of an ancient division of the duties of customs into five great branches, each of which was originally the subject of a particular farm, though they are now all united into one), and in those which are said to be reckoned foreign, there are many local duties which do not extend beyond a particular town or district. There are some such even in the provinces which are said to be treated as foreign, particularly in the city of Marseilles. It is unnecessary to observe how much both the restraints upon the interior commerce of the country and the number of the revenue officers must be multiplied, in order to guard the frontiers of those different provinces and districts which are subject to such different systems of taxation.”
And there were numerous attendant errors, such as generally accompany a great Protective legislation, but which need not be specified in detail.
In consequence, the people were exceedingly miserable. The system of taxation was often enough by itself to cause great misery. “In the provinces,” says Adam Smith, “where the personal taille on the farm is imposed, the farmer is afraid to have a good team of horses or oxen, but endeavours to cultivate with the meanest and most wretched instruments of husbandry that he can.” The numerous imposts on the land due from the peasantry to the nobles had the same effect even then—most of the country was practically held in a kind of double ownership; the peasant cultivator had usually, by habit if not by law, a fixed hold upon the soil, but he was subject in the cultivation of it to innumerable exactions of varying kinds, which the lord could change pretty much as he chose. “In France,” continues Adam Smith, so oddly contrary to everything which we should say now, “the inferior ranks of the people must suffer patiently the usage which their superiors choose to inflict on them.” The country in Europe where there is now, perhaps, the most of social equality was then the one in which there was, perhaps, the least.
And side by side with this museum of economical errors there was a most vigorous political economy which exposed them. The doctrines of Free Trade had been before several times suggested by isolated thinkers, but by far the most powerful combined school of philosophers who incessantly inculcated them were the French Économistes. They delighted in proving that the whole structure of the French laws upon industry was utterly wrong; that prohibitions ought not to be imposed on the import of foreign manufactures; that bounties ought not to be given to native ones; that the exportation of corn ought to be free; that the whole country ought to be a fiscal unit; that there should be no duty between any province; and so on in other cases. No one could state the abstract doctrines on which they rested everything more clearly. “Acheter, c’est vendre,” said Quesnay, the founder of the school, “vendre, c’est acheter.” You cannot better express the doctrine of modern political economy that “trade is barter”. “Do not attempt,” Quesnay continues, “to fix the price of your products, goods, or services; they will escape your rules. Competition alone can regulate prices with equity; it alone restricts them to a moderation which varies little; it alone attracts with certainty provisions where they are wanted or labour where it is required.” “That which we call dearness is the only remedy of dearness: dearness causes plenty.” Any quantity of sensible remarks to this effect might be disinterred from these writers. They were not always equally wise.
As the prime maxim of the ruling policy was to encourage commerce and neglect agriculture, this sect set up a doctrine that agriculture was the only source of wealth, and that trade and commerce contributed nothing to it. The labour of artificers and merchants was sterile; that of agriculturists was alone truly productive. The way in which they arrived at this strange idea was, if I understand it, something like this: they took the whole agricultural produce of a country, worth say £5,000,000 as it stood in the hands of the farmer, and applied it thus:—
But that outlay of £3,500,000 has produced a value of £5,000,000; there is therefore an overplus over and above the outlay of £1,500,000; and this overplus, or produit net as the Economistes call it, goes to the landlord for rent, as we should call it. But no other employment yields any similar produit net. A cotton spinner only replaces his own capital, and obtains his profit on it; like the farmer (as they said), he pays the outlay, and he gains a profit or subsistence for himself. But he does no more. There is no extra overplus in farming; no balance, after paying wages and hiring capital; nothing to go to any landlord. In the same way commerce is, according to this system, transfer only—the expense of distribution is paid; the necessary number of capitalists and of labourers is maintained, but that is all; there is nothing beyond the wages and beyond the profit. In agriculture only is there a third element—a produit net.
From this doctrine the Économistes drew two inferences—one very agreeable to agriculturists, the other very disagreeable; but both exactly opposite to the practice of their government. First, they said, as agriculture was the exclusive source of all wealth, it was absurd to depress it or neglect it, or to encourage commerce or manufacture in place of it. They had no toleration for the system of finance and commercial legislation which they saw around them, of which the one object was to make France a trading and manufacturing country, when nature meant it to be an agricultural one. Secondly, they inferred that most, if not all, the existing taxes in France were wrong in principle. “If,” they argued, “agriculture is the only source of wealth, and if, as we know, wealth only can pay taxes, then all taxes should be imposed on agriculture.” They reasoned: “In manufactures there is only a necessary hire of labour, and a similar hire of capital, at a cost which cannot be diminished; there is in them no available surplus for taxation. If you attempt to impose taxes on them, and if in name you make them pay such taxes, they will charge higher for their necessary work. They will in a roundabout way throw the burden of those taxes on agriculture. The produit net of the latter is the one real purse of the State; no other pursuit can truly pay anything, for it has no purse. And therefore,” they summed up, “all taxes, save a single one on the produit net, were absurd. They only attempted to make those pay who could not pay; to extract money from fancied funds, in which there was no money.” All the then existing taxes in France, therefore, they proposed to abolish, and to replace them by a single tax on agriculture only.
As this system was so opposed to the practice of the Government, one would have expected that it should have been discountenanced, if not persecuted, by the Government. But, in fact, it was rather favoured by it. Quesnay, the founder of the system, had a place at Court, and was under the special protection of the king’s mistress, who was then the king’s Government. M. de Lavergne has quoted a graphic description of him. “Quesnay,” writes Marmontel, “well lodged in a small appartement in the entresol of Madame de Pompadour, only occupied himself from morning till night with political and agricultural economy. He believed that he had reduced the system to calculation, and to axioms of irresistible evidence; and as he was collecting a school, he gave himself the trouble to explain to me his new doctrine, in order to make me one of his proselytes. I applied all my force of comprehension to understand those truths which he told me were self-evident; but I found in them only vagueness and obscurity. To make him believe that I understood that which I really did not understand was beyond my power; but I listened with patient docility, and left him the hope that in the end he would enlighten me and make me believe his doctrine. I did more; I applauded his work, which I really thought very useful, for he tried to recommend agriculture in a country where it was too much disdained, and to turn many excellent understandings towards the study of it. While political storms were forming and dissolving above the entresol of Quesnay, he perfected his calculations and his axioms of rural economy, as tranquil and as indifferent to the movements of the Court, as if he had been a hundred leagues off. Below, in the salon of Madame de Pompadour, they deliberated on peace or war—on the choice of generals—on the recall of Ministers; while we in the entresol were reasoning on agriculture, calculating the produit net, or sometimes were dining gaily with Diderot, d’Alembert, Duclos, Helvetius, Turgot, Buffon; and Madame de Pompadour, not being able to induce this troop of philosophers to come down to her salon, came herself to see them at table and to chat with them.” An opposition philosophy has rarely been so petted and well treated. Much as the reign of Louis XVI. differed in most respects from that of Louis XV., it was like it in this patronage of the Économistes. Turgot was made Minister of Finance to reform France by applying their doctrines.
The reason of this favour to the Économistes from the Government was, that on the question in which the Government took far the most interest the Économistes were on its side. The daily want of the French Government was more power; though nominally a despotism, it was feeble in reality. But the Économistes were above all things anxious for a very strong Government; they held to the maxim, everything for the people—nothing by them; they had a horror of checks and counterpoises and resistances; they wished to do everything by the fiat of the sovereign. They had, in fact, the natural wish of eager speculators, to have an irresistible despotism behind them and supporting them; and with the simplicity which marks so much of the political speculation of the eighteenth century, but which now seems so childlike, they never seemed to think how they were to get their despot, or how they were to ensure that he should be on their side. The painful experience of a hundred years has taught us that influential despotisms are not easy to make, and that good ones are still less so. But in their own time nothing could be more advantageous to the Economistes than to have an eager zeal for a perfect despotism; in consequence they were patronised by the greatest existing authority, instead of being discountenanced by it.
This account of the Economistes may seem to a reader who looks at Adam Smith exclusively by the light of modern political economy to be too long for their relation to him. But he would not have thought so himself. He so well knew how much his mind had been affected by them and by their teaching, that he at one time thought of dedicating The Wealth of Nations to Quesnay, their founder; and though he relinquished that intention, he always speaks of him with the gravest respect. If, indeed, we consider what Glasgow is now, still more what it must have been a hundred years ago, we shall comprehend the degree to which this French experience—this sight of a country so managed, and with such a political economy—must have excited the mind of Adam Smith. It was the passage from a world where there was no spectacle to one in which there was the best which the world has ever seen, and simultaneously the passage from the most Scotch of ideas to others the most un-Scotch. A feeble head would have been upset in the transit, but Adam Smith kept his.
From France he went home to Scotland, and stayed quietly with his mother at his native town of Kirkcaldy for a whole ten years. He lived on the annuity from the Duke of Buccleuch, and occupied himself in study only. What he was studying, if we considered The Wealth of Nations as a book of political economy only, we might be somewhat puzzled to say. But the contents of that book are, as has been said, most miscellaneous, and in its author’s mind it was but a fragment of an immensely larger whole. Much more than ten years’ study would have been necessary for the entire book which he contemplated.
At last, in 1776, The Wealth of Nations was published, and was, on the whole, well received. Dr. Carlyle, indeed, preserves an impression that, in point of style, it was inferior to The Theory of Moral Sentiments. But all competent readers were agreed as to the great value of the substance. And almost everybody will probably now think, in spite of Dr. Carlyle, that the style is very much better than that of the Moral Sentiments. There is about the latter a certain showiness and an “air of the professor trying to be fascinating,” which are not very agreeable; and, after all, there is a ponderous weight in the words which seems to bear down the rather flimsy matter. But the style of The Wealth of Nations is entirely plain and manly. The author had, in the interval, seen at least a little of the living world and of society, and had learnt that the greatest mistake is the trying to be more agreeable than you can be, and that the surest way to spoil an important book is to try to attract the attention of, to “write down” to, a class of readers too low to take a serious interest in the subject. A really great style, indeed, Adam Smith’s certainly is not. Lord Mansfield is said to have told Boswell that he did not feel, in reading either Hume or Adam Smith, that he was reading English at all; and it was very natural that it should be so. English was not the mother tongue of either. Adam Smith had, no doubt, spoken somewhat broad Scotch for the first fourteen or fifteen years of his life; probably he never spoke anything that could quite be called English till he went to Oxford. And nothing so much hampers the free use of the pen in any language as the incessant remembrance of a kindred but different one; you are never sure the idioms nature prompts are those of the tongue you would speak, or of the tongue you would reject. Hume and Adam Smith exemplify the difficulty in opposite ways. Hume is always idiomatic, but his idioms are constantly wrong; many of his best passages are, on that account, curiously grating and puzzling; you feel that they are very like what an Englishman would say, but yet that, after all, somehow or other, they are what he never would say;—there is a minute seasoning of imperceptible difference which distracts your attention, and which you are for ever stopping to analyse. Adam Smith’s habit was very different. His style is not colloquial in the least. He adheres to the heavy “book” English which he had found in the works of others, and was sure that he could repeat in his own. And in that sort of style he has eminent merit. No one ever has to read him twice to gather his meaning; no one can bring much valid objection to his way of expressing that meaning; there is even a sort of appropriateness, though often a clumsy sort, in his way of saying it. But the style has no intrinsic happiness; no one would read it for its own sake; the words do not cleave to the meaning, so that you cannot think of them without it, or of it without them. This is only given to those who write in the speech of their childhood, and only to the very few of those—the five or six in every generation—who have from nature the best grace, who think by inborn feeling in words at once charming and accurate.
Of The Wealth of Nations as an economic treatise, I have nothing to say now; but it is not useless to say that it is a very amusing book about old times. As it is dropping out of immediate use from change of times, it is well to observe that this very change brings it a new sort of interest of its own. There are few books from which there may be gathered more curious particulars of the old world. I cull at random almost that “a broad wheel waggon, attended by two men, and drawn by eight horses,” then “in about six weeks’ ” time carried and brought trade between London and Edinburgh;—that in Adam Smith’s opinion, if there were such an effectual demand for grain as would require a million tons of shipping to import it, the “navy of England,” the mercantile navy of course, would not be sufficient for it;—that “Holland was the great emporium of European goods”; that she was, in proportion to the land and the number of inhabitants, by far the richest country in Europe; that she had the greatest share of the ocean-carrying trade; that her citizens possessed £40,000,000 in the French and English funds;—that in Sheffield no master cutler can have more than one apprentice, by a by-law of the corporation, and in Norfolk and Norwich no weaver more than two;—that, if Adam Smith’s eyes served him right, “the common people in Scotland, who are fed with oatmeal, are in general neither so strong nor so handsome as the same class of people in England, who are fed with wheaten bread,” and that they do not look or work as well; that—and this is odder still—“the porters and coalheavers in London, and those unfortunate women who live by prostitution—the strongest men and the most beautiful women, perhaps, in the British dominions—are from the lowest rank of people in Ireland, and fed with the potato”;—that £1000 share in India stock “gave a share not in the plunder, but in the appointment of the plunderers of India”;—that “the expense of the establishment of Massachusetts Bay, before the commencement of the late disturbances,” that is, the American War, “used to be about £18,000 a year, and that of New York, £4500”;—that all the civil establishments in America did not at the same date cost £67,000 a year;—that “in consequence of the monopoly of the American colonial market,” the commerce of England, “instead of running in a great number of small channels, has been taught to run principally in one great channel”;—that “the territorial acquisitions of the East India Company, the undoubted right of the Crown,” “might be rendered another source of revenue more abundant, perhaps, than all” others from which much addition could be expected;—that Great Britain is, perhaps, since “the world began, the only State which has extended its empire” “without augmenting the area of its resources”;—that, and this is the final sentence of the book, “if any of the provinces of the British empire cannot be made to contribute towards the support of the whole empire, it is surely time that Great Britain should free herself from the expense of defending those provinces in time of war, and of supporting any part of their civil or military establishments in time of peace, and endeavour to accommodate her future views and designs to the real mediocrity of her circumstances”. A strange passage, considering all that has happened since, and all the provinces which we have since taken. No one can justly estimate The Wealth of Nations who thinks of it as a book of mere political economy, such as Quesnay had then written, or as Ricardo afterwards wrote. It is really full both of the most various kinds of facts and of thoughts often as curious on the most various kinds of subject.
The effect of the publication of The Wealth of Nations on the fortunes of its author was very remarkable. It gave the Duke of Buccleuch the power of relieving himself of his annuity, by performing the equivalent clause in the bargain; he obtained for Adam Smith a commissionership of customs for Scotland—an appointment of which we do not know the precise income, but which was clearly, according to the notions of those times, a very good one indeed. A person less fitted to fill it could not indeed easily have been found. Adam Smith had, as we have seen, never been used to pecuniary business of any kind; he had never even taken part in any sort of action out of such business; he was an absent and meditative student. It was indeed during his tenure of this office that, as I have said, he startled a subordinate, who asked for his signature, by imitating the signature of the last commissioner, instead of giving his own—of course in pure absence of mind. He was no doubt better acquainted with the theory of taxation than any other man of his time; he could have given a Minister in the capital better advice than any one else as to what taxes he should, or should not, impose. But a commissioner of customs, in a provincial city, has nothing to do with the imposition of taxes, or with giving advice about them. His business simply is to see that those which already exist are regularly collected and methodically transmitted, which involves an infinity of transactions requiring a trained man of detail. But a man of detail Adam Smith certainly was not—at least, of detail in business. Nature had probably not well fitted him for it, and his mode of life had completed the result, and utterly unfitted him. The appointment that was given him was one in which the great abilities which he possessed were useless, and in which much smaller ones, which he had not, would have been of extreme value.
But in another respect this appointment has been more blamed than I think is just. However small may be the value of Adam Smith’s work at the custom-house, the effect of performing it and the time which it occupied prevented him from writing anything more. And it has been thought that posterity has in consequence suffered much. But I own that I doubt this exceedingly. Adam Smith had no doubt made a vast accumulation of miscellaneous materials for his great design. But these materials were probably of very second-rate value. Neither for the history of law, nor of science, nor of art, had the preliminary work been finished, which is necessary before such a mind as Adam Smith’s can usefully be applied to them. Before the theorising philosopher must come the accurate historian. To write the history either of law or science or art is enough for the life of any single man: neither have as yet been written with the least approach to completeness. The best of the fragments on these subjects, which we now have, did not exist in Adam Smith’s time. There was, therefore, but little use in his thinking or writing at large about them. If he had set down for us some account of his residence in France, and the society which he saw there, posterity would have been most grateful to him. But this he had no idea of doing; and nobody would now much care for a series of elaborate theories, founded upon facts insufficiently collected.
Adam Smith lived for fourteen years after the publication of The Wealth of Nations; but he wrote nothing, and scarcely studied anything. The duties of his office, though of an easy and routine character, which would probably have enabled a man bred to business to spend much of his time and almost all his mind on other things, were, we are told, enough “to waste his spirits and dissipate his attention”. And not unnaturally, for those who have ever been used to give all their days to literary work, rarely seem able to do that work when they are even in a slight degree struck and knocked against the world; only those who have scarcely ever known what it is to have unbroken calm are able to accomplish much without that calm. During these years Adam Smith’s life passed easily and pleasantly in the Edinburgh society of that time—a very suitable one, for it was one to which professors and lawyers gave the tone, and of which intellectual exertion was the life and being. Adam Smith was, it is true, no easy talker—was full neither of ready replies nor of prepared replies. He rather liked to listen, but if he talked—and traps it is said were laid to make him do so—he could expound admirably on the subjects which he knew, and also (which is quite as characteristic of the man as we see him in his works) could run up rapid theories on such data as occurred to him, when, as Dugald Stewart tells us in his dignified dialect, “he gave a loose to his genius upon the very few branches of knowledge of which he only possessed the outlines”.
He died calmly and quietly, leaving directions about his manuscripts and such other literary things, and saying, in a melancholy way, “I meant to have done more”. The sort of fame which The Wealth of Nations has obtained, and its special influence, did not begin in his lifetime, and he had no notion of it. Nor would he perhaps have quite appreciated it, if he had. His mind was full of his great scheme of the origin and history of all cultivation. As happens to so many men, though scarcely ever on so great a scale, aiming at one sort of reputation, he attained another. To use Lord Bacon’s perpetual illustration, like Saul, he “went in search of his father’s asses, and he found a kingdom”.
Adam Smith has been said to belong to the Macaulay type of Scotchmen, and the saying has been thought a paradox, particularly by those who, having misread Macaulay, think him a showy rhetorician, and not having at all read Adam Smith, think of him as a dry and dull political economist. But the saying is true, nevertheless. Macaulay is anything but a mere rhetorical writer—there is a very hard kernel of business in him; and Adam Smith is not dry at all—the objection to him is that he is not enough so, and that the real truth in several parts of his subject cannot be made so interesting as his mode of treatment implies. And there is this fundamental likeness between Macaulay and Adam Smith, that they can both describe practical matters in such a way as to fasten them on the imagination, and not only get what they say read, but get it remembered and make it part of the substance of the reader’s mind ever afterwards. Abstract theorists may say that such a style as that of Adam Smith is not suitable to an abstract science; but then Adam Smith has carried political economy far beyond the bounds of those who care for abstract science, or who understand exactly what it means. He has popularised it in the only sense in which it can be popularised without being spoiled; that is, he has put certain broad conclusions into the minds of hard-headed men, which are all which they need know, and all which they for the most part will ever care for, and he has put those conclusions there ineradicably. This, too, is what Macaulay does for us in history, at least what he does best; he engraves indelibly the main outlines and the rough common sense of the matter. Other more refining, and perhaps in some respects more delicate, minds may add the nicer details, and explain those wavering, flickering, inconstant facts of human nature which are either above common sense or below it. Both these great Scotchmen excelled in the “osteology of their subject,” a term invented by Dr. Chalmers, a third great Scotchman who excelled in it himself; perhaps, indeed, it is an idiosyncrasy of their race.
Like many other great Scotchmen—Macaulay is one of them—Adam Smith was so much repelled by the dominant Calvinism in which he was born, that he never voluntarily wrote of religious subjects, nor, as far as we know, spoke of them. Nothing, indeed, can repel a man more from such things than what Macaulay called the “bray of Exeter Hall”. What can be worse for people than to hear in their youth arguments, alike clamorous and endless, founded on ignorant interpretations of inconclusive words? As soon as they come to years of discretion, all instructed persons cease to take part in such discussions, and often say nothing at all on the great problems of human life and destiny. Sometimes the effect goes farther; those subjected to this training become not only silent but careless. There is nothing like Calvinism for generating indifference. The saying goes that Scotchmen are those who believe most or least; and it is most natural that it should be so, for they have been so hurt and pestered with religious stimulants, that it is natural they should find total abstinence from them both pleasant and healthy. How far this indifference went in Adam Smith’s case we do not exactly know; but there is reason to think it extended to all religion. On the contrary, there are many traces of the complacent optimism of the eighteenth century—a doctrine the more agreeable to him perhaps, because it is the exact opposite of Calvinism—and one which was very popular in an easy-going age, though the storms and calamities of a later time dispelled it, and have made it seem to us thin and unreal. The only occasion when Adam Smith ever came near to theological discussion was in a letter on Hume’s death, in which he said that Hume, one of his oldest friends, was the best man he had ever known—praise which perhaps was scarcely meant to be taken too literally, but which naturally caused a great storm. The obvious thing to say about it is, that it does not indicate any very lofty moral standard, for there certainly was no sublime excellence in Hume, who, as Carlyle long ago said, “all his life through did not so much morally live, as critically investigate”. But though the bigots of his time misunderstood him, Adam Smith did not by so saying mean to identify himself with irreligion or even with scepticism.
Adam Smith’s life, however, was not like Macaulay’s—“a life without a lady”. There are vestiges of an early love affair, though but vague ones. Dugald Stewart, an estimable man in his way, but one of the most detestable of biographers, for he seems always thinking much more of his own words than of the facts he has to relate, says: “In the early part of Mr. Smith’s life, it is well known to his friends that he was for several years attached to a young lady of great beauty and accomplishment”. But he does not tell us who she was, and “has not been able to learn” “how far his addresses were favourably received,” or, in fact, anything about the matter. It seems, however, that the lady died unmarried, and in that case the unsentimental French novelists say that the gentleman is not often continuously in earnest, for that “a lady cannot be always saying No!” But whether such was the case with Adam Smith or not, we cannot tell. He was a lonely bookish man, but that may tell both ways. The books may be opposed to the lady, but the solitude will preserve her remembrance.
If Adam Smith did abandon sentiment and devote himself to study, he has at least the excuse of having succeeded. Scarcely any writer’s work has had so much visible fruit. He has, at least, annexed his name to a great practical movement which is still in progress through the world. Free Trade has become in the popular mind almost as much his subject as the war of Troy was Homer’s: only curious inquirers think of teachers before the one any more than of poets before the other. If all the speeches made at our Anti-Corn-Law League were examined, I doubt if any reference could be found to any preceding writer, though the name of Adam Smith was always on men’s lips. And in other countries it was the same. Smith-ism is a name of reproach with all who reject such doctrines, and of respect with those who believe them; no other name is used equally or comparably by either. So long as the doctrines of Protection exist—and they seem likely to do so, as human interests are what they are and human nature is what it is—Adam Smith will always be quoted as the great authority on Anti-Protectionism—as the man who first told the world the truth so that the world could learn and believe it.
And besides this great practical movement, Adam Smith started a great theoretical one also. On one side his teaching created Mr. Cobden and Mr. Bright, on another it rendered possible Ricardo and Mr. Mill. He is the founder of that analysis of the “great commerce” which in England we now call political economy, and which, dry, imperfect, and unfinished as it is, will be thought by posterity one of the most valuable and peculiar creations of English thought. As far as accuracy goes, Ricardo no doubt began this science; but his whole train of thought was suggested by Adam Smith, and he could not have written without him. So much theory and so much practice have really perhaps never sprung from a single mind.
Fortunate in many things, Adam Smith was above all things fortunate in his age. Commerce had become far larger, far more striking, far more world-wide than it ever was before, and it needed an effectual explainer. A vigorous Scotchman, with the hard-headedness and the abstraction of his country, trained in England and familiar with France, was the species of man best fitted to explain it; and such a man was Adam Smith.