Chap 29: Visit to London

Chap 29: Visit to London

1787. Aet. 64

  • In April, he had improved enough to travel to London to consult Hunter.
    • But he was wasted to a skeleton.
  • William Playfair:
    • was brother of his friend the Professor of Mathematics
    • was one of the early editors of the Wealth of Nations
    • met Smith soon after his arrival in London
      • He says Smith looked very ill and was going to decay.
  • In the past, he was stout, not fat.
    • But he was now reduced to skin and bone.
  • However, he was able to see old friends and make new ones.



  • In his Diary, Windham mentions meeting Smith at several different places.
    • When Smith was last in London in 1777, Windham was just a student in the Temple.
    • Windham was first introduced to Smith now when he was:
      • already one of the most powerful ministers England had ever seen, and
      • reforming the national finances with the Wealth of Nations in his hand.
  • Pitt always confessed to be one of Smith’s most convinced disciples.
    • The first few years of his long ministry saw the daybreak of free trade.
    • In a way, he brought commercial emancipation for Ireland.
    • He carried a commercial treaty with France.
    • In accordance with Smith’s recommendations, he passed laws simplifying the collection and administration of taxes.
    • In 1787, he introduced his great[Pg 405] Consolidation Bill.
      • It created order out of the previous chaos of customs and excise.
      • It was such an extensive work that it took 2,537 separate resolutions to state its provisions.
      • These resolutions had only just been read on March 7, a few weeks before Smith arrived in London.
  • Therefore, the young Pitt was most interested to meet Smith.
    • He was carrying Smith’s principles out so extensively in practical legislation.
  • They met repeatedly.
    • One meeting has been preserved, at Dundas’s house on Wimbledon Green:
      • Addington, Wilberforce, and Grenville were part of the meeting
      • Smith was one of the last guests to arrive.
        • When he entered the room, everyone rose from their seats to receive him and remained standing.
        • Smith said “Be seated, gentlemen.”
        • Pitt replied “No, we will stand until you are first seated, for we are all your scholars.”
  • This story seems to rest on Edinburgh tradition.
    • It was first published in the 1838 edition of Kay’s Portraits, more than 50 years after it happened.
    • Most of the biographies contained in that work were written by James Paterson.
      • But a few of the earliest, including this of Smith, were not.
    • However, they were all written from materials which had been long collected by Kay himself.
      • He died in 1832.
      • These were obtained before the time of publication from local residents who had known the men themselves, or had mingled with those who did.
  • Everything was edited by James Maidment.
    • He was the well-known and learned antiquary.
    • His acceptance of the story is some security that it came from an authoritative though unnamed source.
  • Smith was highly taken with Pitt.
    • On one evening when dining with him, he remarked to Addington after dinner:
      • “What an extraordinary man Pitt is;
      • he understands my ideas better than I do myself.”[342]
  • Other [Pg 406]statesmen have been converts to free trade.
  • Pitt never had any other creed.
    • It was his first faith.
    • He was forming his opinions as a young man when the Wealth of Nations appeared.
    • He formed them on it.
  • Smith saw much of this group of statesmen during his visit to the capital in that year.[343]
    • Wilberforce sounded to him about some of his philanthropic schemes.
    • Addington wrote an ode to him after meeting him at Pitt’s.
    • Pitt sought his counsels on some contemplated legislation.
      • He perhaps set him to help him do investigations.
  • In the early part of 1787, Bentham had sent the manuscript of his Defence of Usury from Russia to his friend George Wilson, a barrister.

    • It went against Smith’s doctrine on the subject.
    • On July 14, Wilson writes:
      • “Dr. Smith has been very sick here with an inflammation in the neck of the bladder.
        • It has increased by very bad piles.
        • He has been cut for the piles.
      • The other complaint is since much mended.
      • The physicians say he may do some time longer.
      • He is much with the Ministry.
      • The clerks of the public offices have orders to:
        • furnish him with all papers, and
        • employ additional hands to copy for him, if necessary.
      • I am vexed that Pitt consulted Smith.
        • But if any of his schemes are effective, then I shall be comforted.”[344]
  • Smith might have been examining papers in the public offices in connection with his own work on Government.
    • But Wilson’s statement leaves the impression that the researches were instituted in pursuance of some idea of Pitt’s, probably related to financial reform.
  • If the Dr. Smith of Wilson’s letter is Adam Smith, he would appear to have:
    • stayed in London a considerable time, and
    • have suffered a serious relapse of ill-health during his stay there.

[Pg 407]

  • Wilberforce did not think quite so highly of Smith as Pitt did.
    • He was disappointed to find him too hard-headed to share his own enthusiasm about a great philanthropic adventure of the day.
    • To Smith’s very practical mind, it seemed to be entirely unsuccessful.
  • With some of the  in which
  • Wilberforce was interested in other philanthropic movements such as his anti-slavery agitation, begun in that very year 1787.
    • He would have found the most cordial sympathiser in Smith.
      • Smith had condemned slavery so strongly in his book.
  • The Sunday school movement started by Thomas Raikes two or three years before, also won Smith’s strongest commendation.
    • Raikes writes William Fox on July 27 of this same year.
    • He writes as if the remark had been made in conversation with himself:
      • “Dr. Adam Smith says that ‘No plan has promised to effect a change of manners with equal ease and simplicity since the days of the Apostles.'”
  • These schools were instituted to give gratuitous instruction to all comers for four or five hours every Sunday in the ordinary branches of primary education.
    • They were opposed by some leading ecclesiastics—like the liberal divine Bishop Horsley—because they might be used for political propagandism.
  • The ecclesiastical mind is too often suspicious of the consequences of mental improvement and independence.
    • But to Smith, these were merely the first broad conditions of all popular progress.
  • No man could be less chargeable with indifference to honest and practicable schemes of philanthropy, but the particular scheme towards which Wilberforce found him “characteristically cool” was one which, in his opinion, held out extravagant expectations that could not possibly be realised.
  • I believe it was a project first suggested by Sir James Steuart, the economist.
    • It was taken up warmly after him:
      • by Dr. James Anderson, and
      • especially by John Knox.
        • He was the earliest and [Pg 408]most persistent of crofters’ friends,
        • He was a bookseller in the Strand.
    • Its goal was to check the depopulation and distress of the Scotch Highlands by planting a series of fishing villages all round the Highland coast.
  • Knox’s idea was to plant 40 fishing villages at spots 25 miles apart between the Mull of Cantyre.
    • The Dornoch Firth at a cost of £2000 apiece, or at least as many of them as money could be obtained to start.
    • The scheme rose high in public favour when the parliamentary committee on Scotch Fisheries:
      • gave it a general recommendation in 1785, and
      • suggested the incorporation of a limited liability company by Act of Parliament to carry it out.
  • The Scotch nobility adopted the suggestion with great spirit.
    • In 1786, the British Society for extending the Fisheries was incorporated for that purpose by Royal Charter with a capital of £150,000.
    • It has the Duke of Argyle for Governor and many leading personages for directors.
      • One of them was Wilberforce.
      • It was indeed the grand philanthropic scheme of the day.
  • The shares were rapidly subscribed to justify a start.
    • When Smith was in London in 1787, the society had just begun operations on a paid-up capital of £35,000.
  • One of the directors was Isaac Hawkins Browne, M.P.
    • He was actually down in Scotland choosing the sites for the villages.
    • Wilberforce was already almost hearing the “busy hum” of the little hives of fishermen, coopers, boat-builders, and ropemakers, whom they were settling along the desolate coasts.
  • He naturally spoke to Smith about this large and generous project for the benefit of his countrymen.
    • But he was disappointed to find him very sceptical as to its practical results.
  • Wilberforce writes to Hawkins Browne:
    • “With a certain characteristic coolness, Dr. Smith observed to me that he looked for no other consequence from the scheme than the entire loss of every shilling that should be expended on it
    • But with uncommon candour, he says that the public would not suffer greatly [Pg 409] because the individuals meant to put their hands only in their own pockets.”[345]
  • However, the event has justified the sagacity of Smith’s prognostication.
    • The society began by buying the ground for three fishing settlements on the west coast:
      • one at Ullapool, in Ross-shire;
      • a second at Lochbeg, in Inverness-shire, and
      • a third at Tobermory, in Argyle.
  • They prepared their feuing plans.
    • They built a few houses at their own cost.
    • They tried to attract settlers by offering building feus at low rents and fishing-boats on credit at low rates.
    • Except to a slight extent at Ullapool, their offers were not taken.
    • Not a single boat ever sailed from Tobermory under their auspices.
    • Before many years elapsed, the society deserted these three original west coast stations and sold its interest in them at a loss of some £2000.
  • But meanwhile, the directors had in 1803 bought land at a small port on the east coast, Wick, where a flourishing fishery with 400 boats had already been established by local enterprise without their aid.
    • They founded the settlement of Pulteneytown there.
    • They named it after Smith’s friend, Sir William Pulteney.
    • It has grown with the port’s industry.
  • The society never again tried to resume its original purpose of creating new fishing centres.
    • Here in Pulteneytown, it has obviously only acted the part of the shrewd building speculator, investing in the ground-rents of a rising community and prudently helping in its development.
  • Through this change of purpose, it has contrived to save some of its capital.
    • Having recently been wound up, it sold its whole estate in 1893 for £20,000.
    • After all claims are met may probably have £15,000 of its original capital of £35,000 left to divide.
  • Therefore, the net result of the scheme on the Highland fisheries development has been as near nil as Smith anticipated.
    • If the shareholders have not, as he predicted, lost every shilling of their money, they have lost half of it
    • They only saved the other half by abandoning [Pg 410]the scheme.
  • Within its 108 years’ existence, the society never paid more than 11 annual dividends.
    • Because for many years it saved up its income for building a harbour extension.
    • It eventually lost all these savings, and £100,000 of Government money in a great breakwater.
      • The breakwater was an irremediable engineering failure.
        • It now lies in the bottom of the sea.
  • Smith returned to Edinburgh deeply pleased with:
    • the ministers’ reception and
    • the progress he saw his principles making.
  • The Earl of Buchan says:
    • he came back “a Tory and a Pittite instead of a Whig and a Foxite, as he was when he set out.
    • By and by, the impression wore off.
    • His former sentiments returned, but unconnected with Pitt, Fox, or anybody else.”[346]
  • Had the impression remained until his death, it would be no matter for wonder.
  • A Liberal has little satisfaction in contemplating the conflict of parties during the first years of Pitt’s long administration.
    • Seeing the young Tory minister introducing one great measure of commercial reform after another, while his own Whig chief, Charles Fox, offers to every one of them a most factious and unscrupulous opposition.
  • Soon after his return, Smith received another recognition of his merit in being chosen in November Lord Rector of his old alma mater, the University of Glasgow
    • It was very touching to him.
  • The appointment lay with the whole University, professors and students together.
    • But as there were more students than professors, the decision was virtually in their hands.
    • Their unanimous choice came to Smith (as Carlyle said a similar choice came to him) at the end of his labours like a voice of “Well done” from the University.
      • It had sent him forth to do them.
      • From the coming generation which was to enter upon their fruits.
  • Initially, there was some opposition to his candidature.
    • It was based on the old [Pg 411]electioneering plea:
      • that he was the professors’ nominee, and
      • that it was essential for the students to resent dictation and assert their independence.
  • One of Smith’s keenest opponents among the students was Francis Jeffrey, who was then a Tory.
    • Principal Haldane was also a student at Glasgow at the time.
      • He said that Jeffrey was a little, black, quick-motioned creature with a rapid utterance and a prematurely-developed moustache.
      • Jeffrey’s audience teased him mercilessly for his moustache.
        • He harangued a mob of boys on the green and tried to rouse them to oppose Smith’s nomination.
        • However, his exertions failed  and Smith was chosen without a contest.
  • Smith replied to Principal Davidson after learning of his appointment:—

Reverend and dear Sir

  • I have received the honour of your letter of the 15th instant.
    • I thankfully accept the very great honour of being elected as the Rector of the University of Glasgow.
    • This has given me the most real satisfaction.
  • I owe the greatest obligations to the University of Glasgow.
    • They educated me.
    • They sent me to Oxford.
    • Soon after my return to Scotland, they elected me one of their own members.
    • Afterwards, they preferred me to another office to which the abilities and virtues of the never-to-be-forgotten Dr. Hutcheson had given a superior degree of illustration.
  • I spent 13 years as a member of that Society.
  • It is the most useful and therefore by far the happiest and most honourable period of my life.
    • After 23 years’ absence, I am  to be remembered in so very agreeable a manner by my old friends and protectors.
    • It gives me a heartfelt joy which I cannot easily express to you.
  • I shall be happy to receive the commands of my colleagues on when they will admit me to the office.
  • Mr. Millar mentions Christmas.
  • At the Board of Customs, we commonly have a vacation of five or six days at that time.
  • But I am so regular an attendant that I think myself entitled to take the play for a [Pg 412]week at any time.
  • Therefore, it will be no inconvenience to me to wait on you at whatever time you please.
  • I beg to be remembered to my colleagues in the most respectful and the most affectionate manner;
  • and that you would believe me to be, with great truth, reverend and dear sir, your and their most obliged, most obedient, and most humble servant,

Adam Smith.

Edinburgh, November 16, 1787.

The Rev. Dr. Archibald Davidson,
Principal of the College, Glasgow.[347]

  • He was installed as Rector on December 12, 1787 with the usual ceremonies.
    • He gave no inaugural address.
    • He apparently did not so much offer a formal word of thanks.
  • At least Jeffrey might have been present there.
    • Jeffrey says Smith remained silent.
  • His predecessor was Graham of Gartmore.
    • He held the Rector’s chair for only one year.
    • But Smith, like Burke and Dundas, was re-elected for a second term, and was Rector therefore from November 1787 until November 1789.
  • One of the new friends Smith made during his last visit to London was Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society.
    • He seems to have shown him particular attentions.
    • Shortly after his return, he gave a young Scotch scientific man a letter of very warm recommendation to Sir Joseph.
  • The young man of science was John Leslie, afterwards Sir John, the celebrated Professor of Natural Philosophy in Edinburgh University.
    • Leslie belonged to Kirkcaldy.
    • He had been employed by Smith for the previous two years as tutor to his cousin and heir, David Douglas.
    • He was thus a daily visitor at Smith’s house.
    • He had won a high place in his affections and regard.
  • In 1787, Leslie:
    • gave up his original idea of entering the Church, and
    • resolved to migrate to London to look for literary or scientific employment.
  • Smith furnished him with [Pg 413]of letters of introduction.
    • and, as Leslie informed the writer of his biography in Chambers’s Biographical Dictionary, advised him, when the letter was addressed to an author, to be always sure to read that author’s book before presenting it, so as to be able to speak of the book should a fit opportunity occur.
  • His letter to Sir Joseph Banks is as follows:—


  • Your very great politeness and attention for me when I was last in London has emboldened me to introduce a young gentleman of very great merit.
    • He is very ambitious to know you.
  • I have known the bearer of this letter, Mr. Leslie, for several years.
    • He particular likes mathematics.
  • Two years and a half ago he taught a young gentleman, my nearest relation, in the higher parts of mathematics.
    • He acquitted himself most perfectly to my satisfaction and to that of the young gentleman.
  • He proposes to pursue the same lines in London.
    • He would like to work in the mathematical academies.
  • Besides his knowledge in mathematics he is a tolerable Botanist and Chemist.
  • If you find him deserving, your countenance and good opinion will be most important to him.
  • I most anxiously and earnestly recommend him to your protection.
  • I have the honour to be, with the highest respect and regard, sir, your most obliged and most obedient humble servant,

Adam Smith.[348]

Edinburgh, December 18, 178(sic).
Sir Joseph Banks.

  • Why does so large a proportion of Smith’s extant letters consist of letters of introduction?
  • Have they a better principle of vitality than others, that they should be more frequently preserved?
  • There certainly seems less reason to preserve them, but then there is also less reason to destroy them.

[Pg 414]

  • Smith’s health appears to have improved so much during the spring of 1788.
    • From Robertson’s letter to Gibbon, we know what his friends had been seriously alarmed about his condition, but were now again free from anxiety.
    • He seemed to them to be “perfectly re-established.”
  • But in the autumn, he suffered another great personal loss in the death of his cousin, Miss Jean Douglas.
    • She had lived under his roof for so many years.
  • His home was now desolate.
    • His mother and his cousin—the two lifelong companions of his hearth—were both gone.
  • His young heir was only with him during the vacations from Glasgow College, where he was now living with Professor John Millar.
  • Being a man for whom the domestic affections went for so much, there seemed, amid all the honour, love, obedience, troops of friends that enrich the close of an important career, to remain a void in his life that could not be filled.
  • Gibbon had sent him a present of the three concluding volumes of the Decline and Fall, and Smith writes him in November a brief letter of thanks, in which he sets the English historian where he used to set Voltaire, at the head of all living men of letters.

Edinburgh, December 18, 1788.

My Dear Friend

  • I apologise for not having long ago returned you my best thanks for your gift of the three last volumes of your History.
  • I am very happy to see you at the head of the European literary tribe with the universal consent of every man of taste and learning that I know.

I ever am, my dear friend, most affectionately yours,

Adam Smith.[349]

  • In this letter, Smith does not complain of his health.
    • But he seems to have got worse again in the winter.
    • For we find Gibbon writing Cadell, [Pg 415]the bookseller, with some anxiety on February 11,  1789:
      • “I am most interested in knowing of Adam Smith’s welfare whether:
        • he were ill then
        • he recovered in the summer
        • he was in excellent spirits in July, when Samuel Rogers saw him during his week in Edinburgh.”


[342] Pellew’s Life of Sidmouth, i. 151.

[343] Wilberforce’s Correspondence, i. 40.

[344] Bowring’s Memoir of Bentham, Bentham’s Works, x. 173.

[345] Wilberforce’s Correspondence, i. 40.

[346] The Bee, vol. in. p. 165.

[347] Glasgow College Minutes.

[348] Morrison MSS.

[349] Gibbon’s Miscellaneous Works, ii. 429.

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