Life of Adam Smith

Rae, John
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London: Macmillan and Co.
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1761. Aet. 38


SMITH visited London for the first time in September 1761, when Hume and probably others of his Scotch friends happened to be already there. He had not visited London in the course of his seven years' residence at Oxford, for, as Mr. Rogers reports, the Balliol Buttery Books show him never to have left Oxford at all during that time, and he had not visited London in the course of the first ten years he spent in Glasgow, otherwise the University would be certain to have preserved some record of it. For Glasgow University had much business to transact in London at that period, and would be certain to have commissioned Smith, if he was known to be going there, to transact some of that business for it. It never did so, however, till 1761. But in that year, on the 16th of June, the Senate having learned Smith's purpose of going to London, authorise him to get the accounts of the ordinary revenue of the College and the subdeanery for crops 1755, 1756, 1757, and 1758 cleared with the Treasury (that public office being then always in deep arrears with its work); to meet with Mr. Joshua Sharpe and settle his accounts with respect to the lands given to the College by Dr. Williams (the Dr. Williams of Williams's Library); to inquire into the state of the division of Snell's estate as to Coleburn farm, and the affair of the Prebends of Lincoln; and to get all particulars about the £500 costs in the Snell lawsuit with Balliol, which had to be paid to the University. Those documents were delivered, on the 27th of August, to Smith in præsentia, and then on the 15th of October, after his return, he reported what he had done, and produced a certificate, signed by the Secretary to the Treasury, finding that the University had in the four years specified and the years preceding expended above their revenue the sum of £2631:6:5 11/12. I mention all these details with the view of showing that during Smith's residence in Glasgow the University had a variety of important and difficult business to transact in London, which they would be always glad to get one of their own number to attend to personally on the spot, and that as Smith was never asked to transact any of this business for them except in 1761, it may almost with certainty be inferred that he never was in London on any other occasion during his connection with that University.


Now this journey to London in 1761 is memorable because it constituted the economic "road to Damascus" for a future Prime Minister of England. It was during this journey, I believe, that Smith had Lord Shelburne for his travelling companion, and converted the young statesman to free trade. In 1795 Shelburne (then become Marquis of Lansdowne) writes Dugald Stewart: "I owe to a journey I made with Mr. Smith from Edinburgh to London the difference between light and darkness through the best part of my life. The novelty of his principles, added to my youth and prejudices, made me unable to comprehend them at the time, but he urged them with so much benevolence, as well as eloquence, that they took a certain hold which, though it did not develop itself so as to arrive at full conviction for some few years after, I can truly say has constituted ever since the happiness of my life, as well as the source of any little consideration I may have enjoyed in it."*46


Shelburne was the first English statesman, except perhaps Burke, who grasped and advocated free trade as a broad political principle; and though his biographer, Lord Edmond Fitzmaurice, attributes his conversion to Morellet, it is plain from the letter to Stewart that Morellet had only watered, it was Smith that sowed.


It is important, therefore, to fix if possible the date of this interesting journey. It occurred, Lord Shelburne says, in his own youth, and the only journeys to London Smith made during the period which with any reasonable stretching may be called Shelburne's youth, were made in 1761, 1763, and 1773. Now we have no positive knowledge of Shelburne being in Scotland any of these years, but in 1761 his brother, the Hon. Thomas Fitzmaurice, who had been studying under Smith in Glasgow, and living in Smith's house, left Glasgow for Oxford; and Shelburne, who, since his father's death that very year, was taking, as we know from his correspondence with Sir William Blackstone on the subject, a very responsible concern in his younger brother's education and welfare, may very probably have gone to Scotland to attend him back. This circumstance seems to turn the balance in favour of 1761 and against the other two dates.


It is almost certain that the journey was not in 1773, for Shelburne would hardly have thought of himself as so young at that date, six years after he had been Secretary of State, and besides he had probably cast off his prejudices by that time, and was already (as we shall presently find) receiving instruction from Smith on colonial policy in 1767; and whether it was 1761 or 1763, it in either case shows at what a long period before the appearance of the Wealth of Nations Smith was advocating those broad principles which struck Shelburne at the time for their "novelty," and were only fully comprehended and accepted by him a few years afterwards.


Of Smith's visit to London on this occasion we know almost no particulars, but I think the notorious incident of his altercation with Johnson at the house of Strahan the printer must be referred to this visit. The story was told by Robertson to Boswell and Allan Ramsay, the painter, one evening in 1778, when they were dining together at the painter's house, and Johnson was expected as one of the guests. Before the doctor arrived the conversation happened to turn on him, and Robertson said, "He and I have always been very gracious. The first time I met him was one evening at Strahan's, when he had just had an unlucky altercation with Adam Smith, to whom he had been so rough that Strahan, after Smith was gone, had remonstrated, and told him that I was coming soon, and that he was uneasy to think that he might behave in the same way to me. 'No, no, sir,' said Johnson, 'I warrant you Robertson and I shall do very well.' Accordingly he was gentle and good-humoured and gracious with me the whole evening, and he has been so on every occasion that we have met since. I have often said laughing that I have been in a great measure indebted to Smith for my good reception."*47


Now this incident must have occurred years before 1778, the date of Ramsay's dinner-party at which it was related, for Robertson speaks of having met Johnson many times between; and it probably occurred before 1763, because in 1763 Boswell mentions in his journal having told Johnson one evening that Smith had in his lectures in Glasgow expressed the strongest preference for rhyme over blank verse, and Johnson alludes in his reply to an unfriendly meeting he had once had with Smith. "Sir," said he, "I was once in company with Smith, and we did not take to each other, but had I known that he loved rhyme so much as you tell me he does I should have hugged him."*48 This answer seems to imply that the meeting was not quite recent—not in 1763—and if it occurred before 1763, it must have been in 1761.


It was, no doubt, this unhappy altercation that gave rise to the legendary anecdote which has obtained an immortality it ill deserved, but which cannot be passed over here, because it has been given to the world by three independent authorities of such importance as Sir Walter Scott, Lord Jeffrey, and Bishop Wilberforce. Scott communicates the anecdote to Croker for his edition of Boswell's Johnson, as it was told him by Professor John Millar of Glasgow, who had it from Smith himself the night the affair happened. Wilberforce gives it ostensibly as it was heard by his father from Smith's lips; and Jeffrey, in reviewing Wilberforce's book in the Edinburgh Review, says he heard the story, in substantially the same form as Wilberforce tells it, nearly fifty years before, "from the mouth of one of a party into which Mr. Smith came immediately after the collision."


The story, as told by Scott, is in this wise:*49 "Mr. Boswell has chosen to omit (in his account of Johnson's visit to Glasgow), for reasons which will be presently obvious, that Johnson and Adam Smith met at Glasgow; but I have been assured by Professor John Millar that they did so, and that Smith, leaving the party in which he had met Johnson, happened to come to another company where Millar was. Knowing that Smith had been in Johnson's society, they were anxious to know what had passed, and the more so as Dr. Smith's temper seemed much ruffled. At first Smith would only answer, 'He's a brute; he's a brute;' but on closer examination it appeared that Johnson no sooner saw Smith than he attacked him for some point of his famous letter on the death of Hume. Smith vindicated the truth of his statement. 'What did Johnson say?' was the universal inquiry. 'Why, he said,' replied Smith, with the deepest impression of resentment, 'he said, You lie.' 'And what did you reply?' 'I said, You are a son of a—!' On such terms did these two great moralists meet and part, and such was the classical dialogue between two great teachers of philosophy."


Wilberforce's version is identical with Scott's, except that it commits the absurdity of making Smith tell not the story itself, but the story of his first telling it. "'Some of our friends,' said Adam Smith, 'were anxious that we should meet, and a party was arranged for the purpose in the course of the evening. I was soon after entering another society, and perhaps with a manner a little confused. "Have you met Dr. Johnson?" my friends exclaimed. "Yes, I have." "And what passed between you?"'" and so on. All this at any rate is legendary outgrowth on the very face of it, and nonsensical even for that. But even the story itself, as told so circumstantially by Scott, is demonstrably mythical in most of its circumstances. Johnson was never in Glasgow except one day, the 29th of October 1773, and in October 1773 Smith was in London, and as we know from an incidental parenthesis in the Wealth of Nations,*50 engaged in the composition of that great work. Hume, again, did not die till 1776, so that there were better and more "obvious reasons" than Scott imagined for Boswell's omitting mention of a meeting between Johnson and Smith at Glasgow which never took place, and a collision between them about a famous letter which was not then written. Time, place, and subject are all alike wrong, but these Scott might think but the mortal parts of the story, and he sometimes varied them in the telling himself. Moore heard him tell it at his own table at Abbotsford somewhat differently from the version he gave to Croker.*51 But when so much is plainly the insensible creation of the imagination, what reliance can be placed on the remainder? All we know is that apparently at their very first meeting those two philosophers did, in Strahan's house in London in September 1761, have a personal altercation of an outrageous character, at which, if not the very words reported by Scott, then words quite as strong must manifestly have passed between them; that their host declared Johnson to be entirely in the wrong, and that Smith withdrew from the company, and would very possibly go, as the story relates, to another company, his Scotch friends at the British Coffee-House in Cockspur Street, then the great Scotch resort,—a house which was kept by the sister of his friend Bishop Douglas, which was frequented much by Wedderburn, John Home, and others, and to which Smith's own letters used to be addressed.


One thing remains to be said: if the world has never been able to suffer this little morsel of scandal to be forgotten, the two principals in the feud themselves were able to forget it entirely. Smith was at a later period in the habit of meeting Johnson constantly at the table of common friends in London, and was elected in 1775 a member of Johnson's famous club, which would of course have been impossible—and indeed in so small a society never have been thought of—had the slightest remnant of animosity continued on either side. Johnson, it is true, was still occasionally rude to Smith, as he was occassionally rude to every other member of the club; and certainly Smith never established with him anything of the cordial personal friendship he enjoyed with Burke, Gibbon, or Reynolds; but their common membership in the Literary Club is proof of the complete burial of their earlier quarrel.

Notes for this chapter

Stewart's Life of Smith; Works, ed. Hamilton, vol. x. p. 95.
Boswell's Johnson, ed. Hill, iii. 331.
Ibid. i. 427.
Boswell's Johnson, ed. Hill, v. 369.
Book IV. chap. vii.
Russell's Life of Moore, p. 338.

Chapter XI

End of Notes

13 of 35

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