Chap 28: The Population Question

Chap 28: The Population Question


  • Dr. Richard Price had recently stirred a sensation by his attempt to prove that England’s population was declining.
    • It had actually declined by nearly 30% since the Revolution.
  • The first to go against him was William Eden.
    • Eden’s Fifth Letter to the Earl of Carlisle was published in 1780.
    • It exposes the weakness of Price’s statistics.
    • It argues that both England’s population and trade had increased.
  • Price replied to these criticisms in the same year.
    • In 1785, Eden appears to have been contemplating:
      • a return to the subject and
      • the publication of another work on it.
        • He wrote to Smith in connection with it.
        • For the two following letters bearing on this population question of last century, though neither of them bears any name or address, seem most likely to have been written to that politician.


  • Price had drawn his alarmist conclusions from rough estimates founded on the revenue returns.
    • From a comparison of the hearth-money returns before the Revolution with the window and house tax returns of his own time he guessed at the number of dwelling-houses in the country, and from the number of dwelling-houses he guessed at the number of inhabitants by simply supposing each house to contain five persons.
  • He further tried to support his conclusion by figures drawn from bills of mortality and by references to colonial emigration, consolidation of farms, the growth of London, and the progress of luxury.

[Pg 399]

  • Smith thought very poorly of those ill-founded speculations.
    • Even of their author generally, and he appears to have called Eden’s attention to a population return relative to Scotland which furnished a sounder basis for a just estimate of the numbers of the people than the statistics on which Price relied.
  • This was a return of the number of examinable persons in every parish of Scotland which had been obtained in 1755 by Dr. Alexander Webster, at the desire of Lord President Dundas, for the information of the Government.
  • Public catechisings were then, and in many parishes are still, part of the ordinary duties of the minister, who visited each hamlet and district of his parish successively for the purpose every year, and consequently every minister kept a list of the examinable persons in his parish—the persons who were old enough to answer his questions on the Bible or Shorter Catechism.
    • None were too old to be exempt.
  • Webster procured copies of these lists for every parish in Scotland.
    • When he added to each a certain proportion to represent the number of persons under examinable age, he had a fairly accurate statement of the population of the country.
  • He appears to have:
    • procured the lists for 1779 as well as those for 1755
    • ascertained from a comparison of the two that the population of Scotland had remained virtually stationary during those 25 years the increase in the commercial and manufacturing districts being counterbalanced by a diminution in the purely agricultural districts, due to the consolidation of farms.
  • At least, that was the impression of the officials of the Ministers’ Widows’ Fund, through whom the correspondence on the subject with the ministers had been conducted.
    • They doubted an observation of a contrary import.
      • It implied that Scotland’s population was increasing
      • Smith heard Webster make in one of those hours of merriment for which that popular and useful divine seems destined to be remembered when his public services are forgotten.

Smith’s first letter runs thus:

[Pg 400]


  • I have been so long in answering your very obliging letter of the 8th inst. that I am afraid you will imagine I have been forgetting or neglecting it.
    • I hoped to send one of the accounts by the post after I received your letter,
    • but some difficulties have occurred which I was not aware of, and
    • you may yet be obliged to wait a few days for it.
    • In the meantime, I send you a note extracted from Mr. Webster’s book by his clerk, who was of great use to him in composing it, and who has made several corrections upon it since.


  • My letters as a Commissioner of the Customs are paid at the Custom House.
  • My correspondents receive them duty free.
  • I should otherwise have taken the liberty to enclose them, as you direct, under Mr. Rose’s cover.
  • It may perhaps give that gentleman pleasure to be informed that the net revenue arising from the customs in Scotland is at least four times greater than it was seven or eight years ago.
  • It has been increasing rapidly these past four or five years past.
    • This year’s revenue has overleaped by at least half the revenue of the greatest former year.
  • I flatter myself it is likely to increase still further.
  • The development of the causes of this augmentation would require a longer discussion than this letter will admit.


  • Price’s speculations cannot fail to sink into the neglect that they have always deserved.
  • I have always considered him as:
    • a factious citizen
    • a most superficial philosopher, and
    • an unable calculator.

I have the honour to be, with great respect and esteem, sir, your most faithful humble servant,

Adam Smith.

Custom House, Edinburgh, December 22, 1785.

I shall certainly think myself very much honoured by any notice you may think proper to take of my book.[339]

  • The second letter followed in a few days:—

Edinburgh, January 3, 1786.


The accounts of Scotland’s imports and exports which you wanted are sent by this day’s post to Mr. Rose.

  • Since I wrote to you last I have:
    • conversed with:
      • Sir Henry Moncreiff, and
        • He is Dr. Webster’s successor as collector of the fund for [Pg 401]the maintenance of clergymen’s widows, and
      • his clerk
        • He was likewise clerk to Dr. Webster.
        • He was of great use to the Doctor in the composition of the very book which I mentioned to you in a former letter.
  • They both think that the conversation I had with Dr. Webster a few months before his death must have been the effect of:
    • a momentary and sudden thought and
    • not of any serious or deliberate consideration or inquiry.
  • It was:
    • at a very jolly table,
    • in the midst of much mirth and jollity which he loved and promoted, among his many other useful and amiable qualities.
  • They told me that:
    • in the year 1779 a copy of the Doctor’s book was made out by his clerk for the use of my Lord North.
    • at the end of that book, the Doctor had subjoined a note to the following purpose, that though between 1755 and 1779 the numbers in the great trading and manufacturing towns and villages were considerably increased,
    • yet the Highlands and Islands were much depopulated, and even the low country, by the enlargement of farms, in some degree;
    • so that the whole numbers, he imagined, must be nearly the same at both periods. Both these gentlemen believe that this was the last deliberate judgment which Dr. Webster ever formed upon this subject.
  • The lists mentioned in the note are the lists of what are called examinable persons—that is, of persons upwards of seven or eight years of age, who are supposed fit to be publicly examined upon religious and moral subjects.
  • Most of our country clergy keep examination rolls of this kind.


  • My Lord North will be happy to accommodate you with the use of this book.
  • It is a great curiosity.
  • Though the conversation I mentioned to you had a little shaken my faith in it.
  • I am glad now to suppose, without much reason.

I have the honour to be, with the highest regard, sir, your most obedient humble servant,

Adam Smith.[340]

  • The fourth edition of the Wealth of Nations appeared in 1786.
    • It any alteration in the text from the previous one, but the author prefixed to it an advertisement acknowledging the very great obligations he had been under to Mr. Henry Hope, the banker at Amsterdam, for (to quote the words of the advertisement)
    • The Bank of Amsterdam is a very interesting and important subject.
      • the most distinct and liberal information on a [Pg 402],
      • of which no printed account has ever appeared to me satisfactory or even intelligible.
    • The name of that gentleman is so well known in Europe, the information which comes from him must do so much honour to whoever has been favoured with it, and my vanity is so much interested in making this acknowledgment, that I can no longer refuse myself the pleasure of prefixing this advertisement to this new edition of my book.”


  • Smith had now reached his grand climacteric.
  • According to the old belief, his 63rd year was the last and most dangerous of the periodical crises to which man’s bodily life was supposed to be subject.
    • the winter of 1786-87 laid him so low with a chronic obstruction of the bowels that Robertson wrote Gibbon they were in great danger of losing him.
  • That was the winter Burns was in Edinburgh.
    • It was owing to this illness and Smith’s consequent inability to go into society, that he and the poet never met.
  • Burns obtained a letter of introduction to Smith from their common friend Mrs. Dunlop.
    • But he writes her on April 19 that when he called he found Smith had gone to London the day before, having recovered, as we know he did, sufficiently in spring to go up there for the purpose of consulting John Hunter.
  • However, he was still in Edinburgh in March.
    • He wrote Bishop Douglas a letter introducing one of his Fifeshire neighbours, Robert Beatson.
      • He was the author of the well-known and very useful Political Index.
      • Beatson had been an officer of the Engineers.
        • But he had:
          • retired on half-pay in 1766 and
          • become an agriculturist in his native county.
    • While there, he compiled his unique and valuable work, which he published in 1786 and dedicated to Adam Smith.
      • A new edition was called for within a year.
      • and the author proposed to add some new matter, on which he wanted Bishop Douglas’ advice:

[Pg 403]

Dear Sir

  • This letter will be delivered to you by Mr. Robert Beatson of Vicars Grange, in Fifeshire.
    • He is a very worthy friend of mine.
    • He is my neighbour in the country for more than 10 years.
  • He has lately published a very useful book called a Political Index.
    • It has been very successful.
    • He now proposes to republish it with some additions.
  • He wishes much to have your good advice with regard to:
    • these additions, and
    • every other part of his book.
  • You are the fittest man to give him good advice on this subject.
    • I therefore:
      • introduce him to you and
      • recommend him most earnestly to your best advice and assistance.
  • You will find him a very good-natured, well-informed, inoffensive, and obliging companion.
  • I was exceedingly vexed and not a little offended when I heard that you had passed through this town some time ago without:
    • calling on me, or
    • letting me know that you were in our neighbourhood.
  • However, my very fierce anger is now a good deal abated.
    • I can forgive the past if you promise to behave better in the future.
  • This year, I am in my grand climacteric.
    • My health has been worse.
  • However, I am getting better and better everyday.
    • With good pilotage, I can weather this dangerous promontory of human life.
    • Afterwards, I hope to sail smoothly for the remainder of my days.—

I am ever, my dear sir, most faithfully and affectionately yours,

Adam Smith.

Edinburgh, March 6, 1787.[341]


[339] Original in possession of Mr. Alfred Morrison.

[340] Original in Edinburgh University Library.

[341] Egerton MSS., British Museum, 2181.

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