Chapter 8b

The Select Society

by Rae

The Select Society imitated the academies which were then common in the larger French towns. It was partly:

  • a debating society for discussing topics of the day
  • a patriotic society for promoting Scotland’s arts, sciences, and manufactures.

The idea was first mooted by Allan Ramsay, [Pg 108]the painter. He had travelled in France in 1739, with James Oswald, M.P. He was struck with some of the French institutions. Smith was one of the first of Ramsay’s friends to be consulted about the suggestion. He threw himself so heartily into it. When Ramsay announced his first formal meeting on May 23, 1754, Smith was one of the 15 persons present and assigned the duty of= explaining the object of the meeting and the nature of the proposed institution.

Dr. A. Carlyle was present. He says= this was the only time he ever heard Smith make a speech. But he was little impressed with Smith’s powers as a public speaker. His voice was harsh. His enunciation was thick, approaching even to stammering.[81] Of course many excellent speakers often stutter much in making a simple business explanation which they are composing as they go along, Smith always stuttered and hesitated a deal for the first 15 minutes even in his class lectures. But his elocution grew free and animated, and often powerful, as he warmed to his task.

The Society had a rapid and remarkable success. The 15 original members soon grew to 130. Men of the highest rank as well as literary name flocked to join it= Kames and Monboddo Robertson and Ferguson and Hume Carlyle and John Home Blair and Wilkie and Wallace, the statistician; Islay Campbell and Thomas Miller, the future heads of the Court of Session; the Earls of Sutherland, Hopetoun, Marchmont, Morton, Rosebery, Erroll, Aboyne, Cassilis, Selkirk, Glasgow, and Lauderdale; Lords Elibank, Garlies, Gray, Auchinleck, and Hailes; John Adam, the architect; Dr. Cullen, John Coutts, the banker and member for the city; Charles Townshend, the witty statesman. A throng of all that was distinguished in the country. They were enrolled as members, and, [Pg 109] frequented its meetings. It met every Friday evening from 6 to 9, at first in a room in the Advocates’ Library. But when that became too small, it was moved to a room hired from the Mason Lodge above the Laigh Council House. Its debates, in which the younger advocates and ministers—men like Wedderburn and Robertson—took the chief part, became speedily famous over all Scotland as intellectual displays to which neither the General Assembly of the Kirk nor the Imperial Parliament could show anything to rival. Hume wrote in 1755 to Allan Ramsay, who had by that time gone to settle in Rome= that the Select Society “has grown to be a national concern. Young and old, noble and ignoble, witty and dull, laity and clergy, all the world are ambitious of a place amongst us, and on each occasion we are as much solicited by candidates as if we were to choose a member of Parliament. our young friend Wedderburn has acquired a great character by his appearance” Wilkie, the minister, “has turned up from obscurity and become a very fashionable man, as he is indeed a very singular one. Monboddo’s oddities divert Sir David’s (Lord Hailes) zeal entertains Jack Dalrymple’s (Sir John of the Memoirs) rhetoric interests. The long drawling speakers have found out their want of talents and rise seldomer. In short, the House of Commons is less the object of general curiosity to London than the Select Society is to Edinburgh. The ‘Robin Hood,’ the ‘Devil,’ and all other speaking societies are ignoble in comparison.”[82]

The second regular meeting was held on June 19, 1754. Mr. Adam Smith was Præses. He gave out the subjects for debate on the following meeting night= Whether a general naturalisation of foreign Protestantism would be advantageous to Britain, and Whether bounties on corn exportation is advantageous to trade, manufactures, and agriculture.[83] Lord Campbell makes it appear as if Smith chose the latter subject by himself, according to a rule where the chairman of one meeting selected the subject for debate at the next meeting. It shows the line his ideas were taking at that early period of his career. But that rule was not adopted for some time after the second meeting It is mentioned in the minutes that on this particular occasion, that the Præses declared the questions that were agreed upon by the majority of the meeting to be the subject of next night’s debate.”[84] Smith possibly suggested the subjects. Whether it be due to his influence or whether it arose merely from an interest at the time, the subjects they discussed were very largely economic. In a selection of them published by the Scots Magazine in 1757 every one partakes of economics. “What are the advantages to the public and the State from grazing? What from corn lands? What should be most encouraged in this country? Whether great or small farms are most advantageous to the country? What are the most proper measures for a gentleman to promote industry on his own estate? What are the advantages and disadvantages of gentlemen of estate being farmers? What is the best and most proper duration of leases of land in Scotland? What prestations beside the proper tack-duty tenants should be obliged to pay with respect to= carriages and other services, planting and preserving trees, maintaining enclosures and houses, working freestone, limestone, coal, or minerals, making enclosures, straightening marches, carrying [Pg 111]off superfluous water to other grounds, and forming drains?

What restrictions should they be put under with respect to=

  • cottars,
  • live stock on the farm,
  • winter herding,
  • ploughing the ground,
  • selling manure, straw, hay, or corn, thirlage to mills,
  • smiths or tradesmen employed on business extrinsic to the farm,
  • subsetting land,
  • granting assignations of leases, and removals at the expiration of leases? What proportion of the produce of lands should be paid as rent to the master? In what circumstances the rents of lands should be paid in money? in what in kind? in what time they should be paid? Whether corn should be sold by measure or by weight? What is the best method of getting public highways made and repaired, whether= by a turnpike law, as in many places in Great Britain, by county or parish work, by a tax, or by what other method? What is the best and most equal way of hiring and contracting servants? What is the most proper method to abolish the practice of giving of vails?”[85] The society had a special agricultural branch. It met once a month and discussed chiefly questions of husbandry and land management. The above list of subjects looks, from its almost exclusively agrarian character, as if it had been the business of this branch of the society merely than of the society as a whole. Still the same causes that made rural economy predominate in the monthly work of the branch would give it a large place in the weekly discussions of the parent association. The members were largely connected with the landed interest Agricultural improvement was then on the order of the day.

Smith attended this society very frequently. He does not appear to have spoken in the debates. With respect to agrarian and commercial problems, he had the best opportunities of [Pg 112] hearing them discussed first hand by experts. The society sometimes discussed literature or art, or familiar old historical controversies, such as whether Brutus did well in killing Cæsar? No subject was tabooed except those that might stir up the Deistic or Jacobite strife= The rules say= “such as regard revealed religion, or which may give occasion to vent any principles of Jacobitism.” But most of the questions debated were of an economic or political character, author =

  • outdoor relief
  • entail
  • banking
  • linen export bounties
  • whisky duties
  • foundling hospitals
  • whether slavery was advantageous to free people?
  • whether a union with Ireland would be advantageous to Great Britain?

Sometimes more than one subject would be got through in a night. Sometimes the debate on a single subject would be adjourned from week to week until it was thrashed out. Every member might speak three times in the course of a debate if he chose, once for 15 minutes, and the other twice for ten.

However, the Select Society was more than a debating club. It aimed to promote the arts, sciences, manufactures, and agriculture in Scotland. After 10 months, it established a well-devised and extensive scheme of prizes for meritorious work, supported by voluntary subscriptions. In the prospectus, the society followed the example of foreign academies in proposing= two subjects for competition every year, chosen one from polite letters and the other from the sciences, and to confer on the winner some public mark of distinction in respect to his taste and learning. However, the reward was not monetary because its principle was for rewards of merit= in the finer arts [Pg 113]be honorary but in the more useful arts, where the merit was of a less elevated character, they were to be lucrative. On the same principle, in the arts the highest place was allowed to be due to genius. Therefore, a reward for a discovery or invention was set at the very top. But it was still of a purely honorary character, A monetary recognition was thought apparently unsuitable to the dignity of that kind of service.

The prospectus goes on to say:

“The art of printing,” —with a glance of satisfaction cast doubtless at the Foulis Press— “The art of printing in this country needs no encouragement.

Yet as to pass it by unnoticed were slighting the merit of those by whose means alone it has attained that eminence, it was resolved that the best printed and most correct book which shall be produced within a limited time be distinguished by an honorary reward.”

On the other hand, paper manufacture needed encouragement in Scotland.

At that time, the Scotch imported their paper from abroad, “from countries which use not half the linen consumed here.

“to remove this defect, to render people more attentive to their own interest and that of their country, to show them the consequence of attention to matters which may seem trivial, it was resolved that for the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth parcels of linen rags gathered within a limited time a reward be assigned in proportion to the quantity and goodness of each parcel.”

In other cases, manufactures were already well established in the country. The thing that still needed to be encouraged by prizes was improvement in the workmanship. For example, “manufactures of cotton and linen prints are already established in different places in Scotland. It was resolved that for the best piece of printed linen or cotton cloth made within a certain period a premium should be allotted, in order= to promote an attention to the elegance of the pattern and to the goodness of the cloth’s colouring and strength. The art of drawing, [Pg 114] was “closely connected with this art and serviceable to most others. It was resolved that for the best drawings by boys or girls under 16 years old, certain premiums be assigned.” Then there was a considerable annual importation into Scotland of worked ruffles and of bone lace and edging. The Select Society thought these might be as well produced at home, under proper encouragement. It was therefore resolved to give both honorary and lucrative rewards for superior merit in such work, the honorary for “women of fashion” who might compete, and the lucrative for those “whose laudable industry contributes to their own support.” Scotch stockings had then a great reputation for the excellence of their workmanship. But Scotch worsted, to make them with, was not so good. Consequently a premium was offered for the best woollen yarn. There was a great demand then for English blankets. There was no reason why the Scotch should not make quite as good blankets out of their own wool. So a premium was proposed for the best imitation of English blankets. Carpet-making was begun in several places in the country. A prize for the best-wrought and best-patterned carpet would encourage the manufacturers to vie with each other. Whisky-distilling, too, was established at different places. Scotch strong ale had even acquired a great and just reputation both at home and abroad. But the whisky was “still capable of great improvement in the quality and taste,” the ale trade “might be carried to a much greater height,” these ends might be severally promoted by prizes for the best tun of whisky and the best hogshead of strong ale.

The practical execution of this scheme was committed to nine of its members who were to be chosen annually. They were to meet with the society once a month to report progress or receive instructions. But to keep this new task quite distinct from the old, The society resolved, like certain mercantile firms when they adopt a new branch [Pg 115]of business, to carry it on under a new firm name. Thus, the Select Society of Edinburgh became “The Edinburgh Society for encouraging arts, sciences, manufactures, and agriculture in Scotland”. The executive committee of nine were termed the “ordinary managers of the Edinburgh Society,” who were assisted by other nine “extraordinary managers.” However, The Edinburgh Society was not a separate institution. It was really only a special committee of the Select Society. It met once a month at a separate time from the usual weekly meeting of the parent society. The business of this monthly meeting came, from the predominant interest of the members. They were so largely composed of the nobility and gentry, to be engrossed almost wholly with agricultural discussions. To render these discussions more effective and profitable, a resolution was passed in 1756 to admit a certain number of practical farmers to the membership.

This extension of the scope of the society’s work was not approved by its founder, Allan Ramsay. He thought it beneath the dignity of such an institution to take an interest in the making of ruffles or the brewing of strong ale. He feared that it would introduce very unintellectual members, to the serious prejudice of the society’s debates. An essay on taste was very well. When it came out he would ask Millar, the bookseller, to send it out to him in Rome, but a prize for the biggest bundle of linen rags! Ramsay writes Hume= “I could have wished that some other way had been fallen upon by which porter might have been made thick and the nation rich without our understanding being at all the poorer for it. Is not truth more than meat, and wisdom than raiment?”[86] But however Ramsay might look down on the project, his coadjutor in the founding of the society, Adam Smith, entertained a very different idea of its importance. A stimulus to the development of her [Pg 116]industries was the very thing Scotland most needed at the moment. He entered heartily into the new scheme, and took a prominent part in carrying it out. He was not one of the nine managers to whom the practical execution of the idea was at first entrusted. But when a few months afterwards the work was divided among four separate committees or sections of five members each, all chosen by another committee of five, nominated expressly for that purpose, Smith is one of this nominating committee, and is by it appointed likewise a member of one of the four executive committees. The other four members of the nominating committee were Alexander Monro Primus, the anatomist. Gilbert Elliot, M.P. for Selkirkshire the Rev. William Wilkie, author of the Epigoniad; and the Rev. Robert Wallace, the predecessor and at least in part the stimulator of Malthus in his speculations on the population question. The five members of this committee were directed by the society to put their own names on one or other of the four executive committees, and they placed the name of Smith, together with that of Hume, on the committee for Belles-Lettres and Criticism. As yet he was evidently best known as literary critic, though the questions propounded by him in this society, and the subjects treated by him in the Literary Society of Glasgow, show that his tastes were already leading him into other directions.

Sufficient contributions soon flowed in. Hume in his letter to Ramsay speaks of £100 being already in hand, and of several large subscriptions besides being promised from various noblemen, whom he names. Accordingly, an advertisement was published in the newspapers on April 10, 1755, offering the following prizes= —

I. Honorary premiums, being gold medals with suitable devices and inscriptions= —

  1. For the best discovery in science.

  2. For the best essay on taste.

[Pg 117]

  1. For the best dissertation on vegetation and the principles of agriculture.

II. Honorary premiums, being silver medals with proper devices and inscriptions= —

  1. For the best printed and most correct book of at least 10 sheets.

  2. For the best printed cotton or linen cloth, not under 28 yards.

  3. For the best imitation of English blankets, not under six.

  4. For the next best ditto, not under six.

  5. For the best hogshead of strong ale.

  6. For the best hogshead of porter.

III. Lucrative premiums= —

  1. For the most useful invention in arts, £21.

  2. For the best carpet as to work, pattern, and colours, of at least 48 yards,.£5= 5s.

  3. For the next best ditto, also 48 yards, £4= 4s.

  4. For the best drawings of fruits, flowers, and foliages by boys or girls under sixteen years of age, £5= 5s.

  5. For the second best, £3= 3s.

  6. For the third best, £2= 2s.

  7. For the best imitation of Dresden work in a pair of man’s ruffles, £5= 5s.

  8. For the best bone lace, not under 20 yards, £5= 5s.

  9. For the greatest quantity of white linen rags, £1= 10s.

  10. For the second ditto, £1= 5s.

  11. For the third ditto, £1.

  12. For the fourth ditto, 15s.

  13. For the fifth ditto, 10s.

The articles were asked to be delivered to Mr. Walter Goodall (David Hume’s assistant in the work of librarian), at the Advocates’ Library, before the first Monday of December.[87]. On August 19, the following additional prizes were offered= — 23. To the farmer who plants the greatest number (not under 1000) of timber trees, oak, beech, ash, or elm, in hedgerows before December 1756, £10.

  1. Second ditto (not under 500), £5.

  2. To the farmer who shall raise the greatest number (not under 2000) of young thorn plants before December 1758, £6.

  3. Second ditto (not under 1000), £4.

In the following year, the society increased the number of its prizes to 92. In 1757 to 120, in 1758 to 138, and in 1759 to 142. They were devoted to encourage of every variety of likely industry—kid gloves, straw hats, felt hats, soap, cheese, cradles to be made of willow grown in Scotland. One premium was offered to the person who would “cure the greatest number of smoky chimneys to the satisfaction of the society.”

The prize for the best essay on taste was won by Professor Gerard of Aberdeen. The essay was published and is still well known to metaphysics students. The prize for the best dissertation on vegetation and agriculture fell to Dr. Francis Home. The best invention was a piece of linen made like Marseille work but on a loom. For this £20, was awarded to Peter Brotherton, weaver in Dirleton, East Lothian. In 1757, Foulis won the prize for the best printed book in Roman characters by his Horace. His Iliad won the best printed book in Greek characters. In 1759, Professor Gerard again won a prize by his dissertation on style.

This society exercised a most beneficial influence in developing and improving Scotland’s industrial resources. The carpet manufacture alone rose £1000 in the year after the establishment of the prizes. The rise was believed to be due to the stimulus they imparted. But, useful and active and celebrated as it was, the Select Society died after 10 years it started. The usual explanation is that it owed its death to Charles Townshend’s sarcasm. Townshend was brought to hear one of the wonderful [Pg 119]debates, which were thought to reflect a new glory on Edinburgh. He was even elected a member of the society. But he observed when he came out that, while he admitted the orators’ eloquence, he was unable to understand a word they said, as they spoke in what to him was a foreign tongue. He asked “Why can you not learn to speak English as you have already learned to write it?”[88]

This was to touch Scotchmen of that period who made any pretensions to education at one of their most sensitive parts. Scotch—the broad dialect of Burns and Fergusson—was still the common language in polite society. It might be heard even from the pulpit or the bench, though English was flowing rapidly into fashion. The younger and more ambitious people were trying their best to lose the native dialect. We know the pains taken by great writers like Hume and Robertson to clear their English composition of Scotch idioms. Wedderburn took greater but less successful pains to cure himself of his Scotch pronunciation. He reverted to it in his old age.

Under these circumstances Townshend’s sarcasm occasioned a little lingual reform movement. Around this time, Thomas Sheridan had invented a method of imparting to foreigners a proper pronunciation of the English language through sounds borrowed from their own. He had just been giving lessons to Wedderburn and probably practising the new method on him. He was brought north in 1761 and delivered 16 lectures in St. Paul’s Chapel, Carrubber’s Close, to about 300 gentlemen. They were “the most eminent in the country for rank and abilities.” Immediately, the Select Society= organised a special association for promoting the writing and speaking of English in Scotland, and engaged a teacher of correct English pronunciation from London. Robertson, Ferguson, and Blair, together with a number of peers, baronets, lords of Session, and leaders of the bar, were the directors of this new association. Smith was not [Pg 120]one of the directors. But spite of the imposing auspices under which this simple project of an English elocution master was launched, it proved a signal failure, for it touched the national vanity. It seemed to involve a humiliating confession of inferiority to a rival nation at the very moment when that nation was raging with abuse of the Scotch, when Wilkes was publishing the North Briton, and Churchill was writing his lampoons; When it was advertised in the Edinburgh newspapers, it provoked such a storm of antipathy and ridicule that even the honourable society which furthered the scheme began to lose favour, Its subscriptions and membership declined, and the organisation fell to pieces. The society reached its culminating point in 1762. After that, subscribers withdrew their names, or refused to pay their subscriptions.

In 1765, the society had no funds to offer more than six prizes and ceased to exist.

Its own explanation was that it died of the loss of novelty. “The arrears of subscriptions seem to confirm an observation that in Scotland every disinterested plan of public utility is slighted as soon as it loses the charm of novelty.”[89]

It remarks= that the two obstacles to Scotland’s literary advancement had been her= deficiency in the art of printing and This had been removed entirely her imperfect command of good English. This could be surmounted, as shown by recent writers. “The idea therefore was that to show men at this particular stage of the country’s progress the gradual advance of science would be a means of inciting them to a more eager pursuit of learning, to distinguish themselves and to do honour to their country.”

The preface to the first number of the new Review says= “If countries have their ages with respect to improvement, then North Britain may be considered as in a state of early youth, guided and supported by the more mature strength of her kindred country. If in anything her advances have been such as to make a more forward state, it is in science.” Like the Select Society, this project also originated through Scotch patriotism. It was felt that though Scotland was at the time stirring with an important literary and scientific movement, the productions of the Scotch press= were too much ignored by the English literary [Pg 121]periodicals and received inadequate appreciation even in Scotland for want of a good critical journal on the spot. Another interesting but even more abortive project which Smith took a leading part in promoting at this same period was the publication of a new literary magazine, the Edinburgh Review. Its first number appeared in July 1755. The second and last in January 1756. Alexander Wedderburn was its editor. He afterwards became Lord High Chancellor of England and Earl of Rosslyn. But in 1755, he only just passed as an advocate at the Scotch bar. The contributors were= Robertson He wrote eight review articles on new historical publications. Blair He gave one or two indifferent notices of works in philosophy. Jardine He was one of the ministers of Edinburgh. He discussed= Ebenezer Erskine’s sermons, a few theological pamphlets, and Mrs. Cleland’s Cookery Book Adam Smith He contributed= to the first number a review of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary, and to the second number a remarkable letter to the editor proposing to= widen the scope of the Review, and give a striking survey of the state of contemporary literature in all European countries. Smith’s two contributions are the ablest and most important articles the Review published.

He gives a warm and most appreciative welcome to[Pg 122] Johnson’s Dictionary. But he thinks it would have been improved= if the author had in the first place more often censured words not of approved use, and if he had, instead of simply enumerating a word’s several meanings= arranged them into classes and distinguished principal from subsidiary meanings. To illustrate what he wants, Smith himself writes two model articles= one on Wit and the other on Humour, both acute and interesting. He counts humour to be= always something accidental and fitful, the disease of a disposition. He considers it much inferior to wit, though it may often be more amusing. “Wit expresses something that is more designed, concerted, regular, and artificial; humour something that is more wild, loose, extravagant, and fantastical; something which comes upon a man by fits which he can neither command nor restrain, and which is not perfectly consistent with true politeness. Humour is often more diverting than wit. Yet a man of wit is as much above a man of humour as a gentleman is above a buffoon; a buffoon, however, will often divert more than a gentleman.”

His second contribution was a long letter to the editor published in the appendix to the second number. In this, Smith advocates the enlargement of the scope of the Review so as to give some account of works of importance published abroad, even though space had to be provided for the purpose by neglecting unimportant publications issued from the Scotch press. In fact, he considers this substitution as a necessity for the continued life of the Review. He says “you will oblige the public much more by giving them an account of such books as are worthy of their regard than by filling your paper with all the insignificant literary news of the time, of which not an article in a hundred is likely to be thought of a fortnight after the publication of the work that gave occasion to it.” He then proceeds to a review of contemporary continental literature which he says to mean French literature at that time [Pg 123]. Italy had ceased to produce literature. Germany produced only science. A sentence or two may be quoted from his comparison between French and English literature. Because they show that he was not, as he is sometimes accused of being, an unfair depreciator of the great writers of England and a blind admirer of those of France. He had a very just opinion of the specific merits of each.

He says: “Imagination, genius, and invention seem to be the talents of the English. taste, judgment, propriety, and order, of the French. The old English poets, Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton, amidst some irregularities and extravagancies, often have a strength of imagination so vast, so gigantic and supernatural, that astonishes and confounds the reader into admiring their genius. It makes the reader despise all criticism against their writings as mean and insignificant. In the eminent French writers, such sallies of genius are more rare. Instead they have= a just arrangement, an exact propriety and decorum, joined to an equal and studied elegance of sentiment and diction. This elegance never strikes the heart like those violent and momentary flashes of imagination. Thus it never revolts the judgment by anything absurd or unnatural. It never wearies the attention by any gross inequality in the style or want of connection in the method. But it entertains the mind with a regular succession of agreeable, interesting, and connected objects.”

From poetry, he passes to philosophy. He finds that the French encyclopedists= had left their native Cartesian system for the English system of Bacon and Newton, and were proving more effective expositors of that system than the English themselves. After reviewing the Encyclopédie at length, he gives an account of the recent scientific works of= Buffon and Reaumur, Rousseau’s famous Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality of Mankind, [Pg 124] It was then only a few months out Smith says, Rousseau, “by the help of his style and with a little philosophical chemistry”= has made “the principles and ideas of the profligate Mandeville seem to have all the purity and simplicity of the morals of Plato, and to be only the true spirit of a republican carried a little too far.” He gives a summary of the book. He translates a few specimen passages. He concludes “I shall only add that the dedication to the Republic of Geneva, of which M. Rousseau has the honour of being a citizen, is an agreeable, animated, and a just panegyric.”

Sir James Mackintosh republished these two numbers of the first Edinburgh Review in 1818 after the second Edinburgh Review had made the name famous. He considers it noteworthy, as showing the contributors to have taken up a very decided political position for so early a period, that the preface to the first number speaks boldly in praise of George Buchanan’s “undaunted spirit of liberty.” But Smith’s warm expression of admiration for the Republic of Geneva, to which he reckons it an honour to belong, is equally notable. He seems to have been always theoretically a republican. He certainly had the true spirit of a republican in his love of all rational liberty. His pupil and lifelong friend was the Earl of Buchan. He says= “He approached to republicanism in his political principles. He considered a commonwealth as the platform for the monarchy, hereditary succession in the chief magistrate being necessary only to prevent the commonwealth from being shaken by ambition, or absolute dominion introduced by the consequences of contending factions.”[90]

Smith’s scheme for the improvement of the Review was never carried out, for with that number the Review itself came to a sudden and premature end. Lord Woodhouselee explained it was given up because the strictures passed by it on some fanatical publications of the day had excited such a clamour[Pg 125] “that a regard to the public tranquillity and their own determined the reviewers to discontinue their labours.”[91] This explanation is doubtful. But Lord Woodhouselee was personally acquainted with several of the contributors. He likely knew of the circumstances. His statement is borne out besides by certain corroborative facts. The theological articles of the two numbers appear to be singularly inoffensive. They were entrusted to Dr. Jardine. He was the only old contributor. He was= the wily leader of the Moderate party in the Church, the Dean of the Thistle. Lord Dreghorn’s verses mentioned him as governing the city’s affairs and the Church through his power over his father-in-law—

The old Provost danced to the whistle Of that arch politician, the Dean of the Thistle. The arch politician contrived to make his theological criticism colourless even to the point of vapidity, but that did not save him or his Review; it perhaps only exposed them the more to the attacks of zealots. His notice of the sermons of Ebenezer Erskine was the Secession leader. Dr. Jardine’s notice of Erskine’s sermons provoked a sharp pamphlet from Erskine’s son. In it, the reviewers were accused of teaching unsound theological views, of= putting the creature before the Creator by allowing the lawfulness of a lie in certain situations throwing ridicule on the Bible and the Westminster Confession of Faith, and having David Hume, an atheist, among their number.

This last thrust was a mere controversial guess. Strangely enough, it guessed wrong. A new literary review is started in Edinburgh by a few of Hume’s younger friends, and Hume himself. Hume was the only one of them who had yet made any name in literature. He was the most distinguished man of letters then in Scotland He is [Pg 126]neither asked to contribute to the periodical, nor even admitted to the secret of its origination. When the first number appeared, he told his acquaintances that he was most surprised that so promising a literary adventure should be started by Edinburgh men of letters without him knowing it. More than that, his very name and writings were strangely and studiously ignored in its pages. His History of the Stewarts was one of the last new books, having been published in the end of 1754. It was unquestionably the most important work that had recently come from any Scotch pen. Yet in a periodical instituted for the very purpose of devoting attention to the productions of Scotch authors, this work of his remained absolutely unnoticed.

Why this complete boycott of Hume by his own household? Henry Mackenzie “thinks he has heard” two reasons given for it= Hume was considered too good-natured to be a critic He would have softened the remarks his colleagues. They determined to keep him out of the secret entirely because he could not keep a secret.[92] But this explanation does not hold. If Hume was so good-natured, he would be less difficult rather than more difficult to manage. If he could not keep a secret, that, as Mr. Burton observes, is a very singular judgment to pass on one who had been Secretary of Legation already and was soon to be Secretary of Legation again, and Under Secretary of State, without having been once under the shadow of such an accusation. Besides, neither of these reasons will explain the ignoring of his writings.

A better explanation is in the intense odium theologicum which= the name of Hume excited at the moment, and made it imperative, if the new Review was to get [Pg 127]justice, that it should be severed from all association with his detested name. Scotland happened to be at that very hour in an exceptional ferment about his theological heresies. One of the strangest of proposals for the previous General Assembly of the Kirk was backed by the most respected country clergy. They proposed to= summon Hume to their bar, visit his Inquiry concerning the Principles of Morals with censure, and excommunicate Hume.

The wise heads of the Scotch Church courts threw out this inconvenient proposal. It did it through the favourite ecclesiastical device of passing an abstract resolution expressing concern at the growing evils of the day, without committing the Church to any embarrassing practical action. Wedderburn said that Hume, as expected, was hardened enough to laugh at the very idea of their anathema. But the originators of the agitation only returned to the battle. They prepared for a victory in the next Assembly in May 1756. Between the two Assemblies, Hume wrote Allan Ramsay who was in Rome= “You may tell the Pope that there are men here who rail at him. Yet would be much greater persecutors had they equal power. The last Assembly sat on me. They did not propose to burn me, because they cannot. But they intended to give me over to Satan, which they think they have the power of doing. However, my friends prevailed. My damnation is postponed for a year. But next Assembly it will surely be upon me.”[93] And so in truth it was. An overture came up calling for action regarding “one person calling himself David Hume, Esq., who hath arrived at such a degree of boldness as publicly to avow himself the author of books containing the most rude and open attacks upon the glorious Gospel of Christ,” a [Pg 128]motion was made to create a committee= “to inquire into his writings, to call him before them, and prepare the matter for the next General Assembly.” This motion was again defeated. The heresy-hunters passed on to= turn their attention to Lord Kames, and summon the printers and publishers of his Essays before the Edinburgh Presbytery to give up the author’s name (the book having been published anonymously) “that he and they may be censured according to the law of the Gospel and the practice of this and all other well-governed churches.”

I believe Hume’s friends contemplated no more than a temporary exclusion of him from their counsels until this storm should pass by. They launched their frail bark in the very thick of the storm. It would have meant instant swamping at that juncture to have taken the Jonah who caused all the commotion and made him one of their crew. For the same reason, when they found that, for all their precautions, the clamour overtook them notwithstanding, they simply put back into port and never risked so unreasoning and raging an element again.

It might be thought that they declined Hume’s cooperation, because they= expressly hoisted the flag of religion in their preface, and professed one of their objects to be to resist the current attacks of infidelity. But there would have been no inconsistency in engaging the cooperation of an unbeliever on secular subjects, so long as they retained the rudder in their own hands. Men who were already Hume’s intimate personal friends were not likely to be troubled with such unnecessary scruples about their consistency. The true reason both of Hume’s exclusion from their secret and of their own abandonment of their undertaking is undoubtedly the reason given by Lord Woodhouselee, that they wanted to live and work in peace. They did not like, to use a phrase of Hamilton of Bangour, to have “zeal clanking her iron bands” about their ears.[Pg 129]. On the other hand, Hume took pleasure in the din he provoked. He had he been a contributor the rest would have had difficulty—and may have felt so—in restraining him from gratifying that taste when any favourable opportunities offered.

While these things were going on in Edinburgh, the Criterion of Miracles Examined came out from the London press. It is said to have been written to convert Adam Smith to believing Christian miracles. It was written= by Smith’s Oxford friend Bishop Douglas, then a country rector in Shropshire. in the form of a letter to an anonymous correspondent. The correspondent had an unfavourable opinion of Christianity’s evidences despite= his good sense, candour, and learning, and the fact that his reasonings were peculiar to himself and not borrowed from books. Chalmers’s Biographical Dictionary says this anonymous correspondent was Adam Smith. From Chalmers’s Dictionary the same statement has been repeated in the same words in subsequent biographical dictionaries and elsewhere, but neither Chalmers nor his successors reveal who it was to whom this was known, or how he came to know it; Macdonald was the son-in-law and biographer of Douglas. On the other hand, Macdonald does not mention Smith in connection with this work at all. He explicitly states that the book was written for the author’s friends. They had been influenced by the objections of Hume and others to the reality of the Gospel miracles.[94] This leaves the point undetermined.

Smith was certainly a Theist. But he most probably discarded the Christian miracles. If Douglas’s book is addressed to his particular position, discarded them on the ground that there is no possible criterion for= distinguishing true [Pg 130]miracles from false, and enabling you to accept those of Christianity if you reject those of profane history. The Earl of Buchan, apostrophising Smith, asks= “Oh, venerable and worthy man, why was you not a Christian?” He tries to let Smith down as gently as possible by suggesting that the reason lay in the warmth of his heart. It always= made him strongly express his friends’ opinions and carried him into sympathy with Hume’s. That is obviously a lame conclusion. Because Smith’s friendship for Hume never made him a Tory. Smith’s opinions on religion were not identical with those of Hume. But Lord Buchan’s words may be quoted as an observation by an acute man of a feature in Smith’s character not without biographical interest. Lord Buchan says “Had Smith been a friend of the worthy ingenious Horrox, he would have believed that the moon sometimes disappeared in a clear sky without the cloud, or of another truly honest and respectable man, that a professor of mathematics at Upsala had a tail of six inches long to his rump.”[95]

In 1756, the literary circle in Edinburgh was much excited by the performance of John Home’s tragedy of Douglas. Smith was not present at that performance. But he was present at some of its previous rehearsals. (Henry Mackenzie, Life of John Home) He was deeply interested in it. Hume tells of the play’s success in London to Smith in Glasgow, while he was planning his work on history. Smith advised Hume to instead= follow up his History of the Stewarts by the history of succeeding periods, go back and write the history before the Stewarts.

After mentioning John Home, Hume proceeds= “I [Pg 131] have heard that the play was not near so well acted in Covent Garden as in this place. But it is likely to be very successful. Its great intrinsic merit breaks through all obstacles. It shall soon be printed. It will be esteemed the best, and by French critics the only tragedy of our language!

“Did you ever hear of the recent madness and folly of our clergy? I expect that the next Assembly will excommunicate me. But it does not matter to me. what do you think?

“I am somewhat idle and indifferent as to my next undertaking. Shall I go backwards or forwards in my History? You used to tell me that you approved more of my going backwards. Going forward would be more popular. But I am afraid I cannot find enough materials to ascertain the truth without settling in London. I am reluctant to settle there. I am settled here very well. I do not wish to move out at my age.

“I have just now received a copy of Douglas from London. It will instantly be published. I hope to send you a copy in the same parcel with the dedication.”[96]

Hume was now very anxious to have his friend nearer him. In 1758, he thought to transfer Smith to a chair in the University of Edinburgh. There was then some probability of Professor Abercromby resigning the chair of Public Law. It was then styled the chair of the Law of Nature and Nations. Smith was not a lawyer. But he was a distinguished professor of jurisprudence. His friends in Edinburgh immediately suggested his candidature, especially as they [Pg 132]believed that he would accept it. The chair of the Law of Nature and Nations was one of the best endowed in the College. It had a revenue of £150 a year independently of fees. But it had= been founded as a job, and continued ever since to be treated as a sinecure. No lecture had ever been delivered by any of its incumbents, despite repeated remonstrances on the part of the Faculty of Advocates. Hume believed that if the Town Council, as administrators of the College, could be got to press for the delivery of the statutory lectures, the present professor would prefer the alternative of resignation. In that event, the vacant office might easily be obtained by Smith, inasmuch as the patronage was in the hands of the Crown. Crown patronage in Scotland then was virtually exercised through Lord Justice-Clerk Milton. He was a nephew of Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, the patriot. He had been, ever since the death of Lord President Forbes, the chief confidential adviser of the Duke of Argyle, the Minister for Scotland, His daughter was Mrs. Wedderburn of Gosford. She was the friend of Robertson and John Home. Milton personally knew Smith through her.

Smith’s Edinburgh friends zealously joined Hume in his representations, especially the faithful Johnstone (afterwards Sir W. Pulteney). He actually wrote Smith a letter on the subject along with Hume’s. Hume’s letter is as follows= —

June 8, 1758 Dear Smith— I write to you along with Johnstone. We have been talking over the matter. We probably shall use the same arguments. As he is the younger lawyer, I leave him to open the case. I suppose that you have read his letter first. Your settlement here and Ferguson’s at Glasgow would be perfectly easy by Lord Milton’s interest. The Prospect of prevailing with Abercrombie is also very good. For the same statesman by his influence over the Town Council could oblige him either to [Pg 133]attend, which he never would do, or dispose of the office for the money which he gave for it. The only real difficulty is then with you. Please consider that this might be the only opportunity for us to get you to town. I dare swear that you think the difference of Place is worth paying something for, yet it will really cost you nothing. You made above 100 pounds a year by your class when in this Place, though you had not the character of Professor. It will not be less than 130 after you are settled. According to our Enquiry, John Stevenson[97] makes near 150. Here is 100 pounds a year for eight years’ Purchase. It is a cheap purchase, even considered as a Bargain. We flatter ourselves that you rate our company at something, and the Prospect of settling Ferguson will be an additional inducement. For though we think of making him take up the Project if you refuse it, yet it is uncertain whether he will consent; and it is attended in his case with many very obvious objections. Please weigh all these motives over again. The changes of these circumstances merit that you should put the matter again in deliberation. I had a letter from Miss Hepburn. She very much regrets that= you are settled at Glasgow, and we so seldom see you.— I am, dear Smith, yours sincerely, David Hume. P.S.—With his finger, Lord Milton can stop the foul mouths of all the Roarers against heresy.

The postscript shows that Smith had not escaped the general hue and cry against heresy which was now for some years abroad in the country.

The Miss Hepburn is Miss Hepburn of Monkrig, near Haddington. She is one of those gifted literary ladies who were then frequently found in Scotland’s country houses. John Home was indebted to Miss Hepburn and her sisters for Douglas’ the first idea.

Robertson submitted to her the manuscript of his History of Scotland piece by piece as he wrote it. When it was finished, the historian sent her a presentation copy with a letter, in which he said=

“Queen Mary has grown up under your eye. You have seen her in many different shapes. You have now a right to her. Were I a galante writer now, what a fine contrast might I make between you and Queen Mary? What a pretty string of antitheses between your virtues and her vices. however, I am glad that she did not resemble you. If she had, Rizzio would have only played first fiddle at her consort (sic), with a pension of 1,000 merks and two benefits in a winter. Darnley would have been a colonel in the Guards. Bothwell would, on account of his valour, have been Warden of the Middle Marches, But he would have been forbidden to appear at court because of his profligacy. But if all that had been done, what would have become of my History?”

Smith seems to have declined Hume’s suggestion about this chair of Law. for we find Hume presently trying hard to secure the place for Ferguson. The difficulty may have been about the price, for though Hume speaks of £800. It seems Abercromby wanted more than £1000. Ferguson also had no mind to begin life with such a debt on his shoulders. But the world is probably no loser by the difficulty which kept Smith five years longer among Glasgow’s merchants and commercial problems.

Smith was one of the founders, or at least the original members, of the Edinburgh Poker Club in 1762. Everyone has heard of that famous club. But most people probably think of it as if it were merely a social or convivial society. Mr. Burton lends some countenance to that mistake by declaring that he has never been able [Pg 135]to discover any other object it existed for except the drinking of claret. But the Poker Club was really a committee for political agitation, like the Anti-Corn-Law League or the Home Rule Union. only, after the more genial manners of those times, the first thing the committee thought requisite for the proper performance of their work was= lay in a stock of sound Burgundy that could be drawn from the wood at 18 pence or 2 shillings a quart, engage a room in a tavern for the exclusive use of the members, and establish a weekly or bi-weekly dinner at a moderate figure, to keep the poker of agitation in active exercise. The club got its name from the practical purpose it was instituted to serve. It was supposed to stir opinion, especially in high quarters, on the question of establishing a national Scotch militia. It was a public question which was exciting the people of Scotland greatly. Some of the members thought that when that question was settled, the club should go on and take up others. For example, George Dempster of Dunnichen was an old and respected parliamentary hand of that time. He wrote Dr. Carlyle in 1762 that when they got their militia, they should agitate for parliamentary reform. It would “let the industrious farmer and manufacturer finally share in a privilege now engrossed by the great lord, drunken laird, and drunkener baillie.”[100] But they never got to consider other reforms. For the militia question was not settled in that generation. It outlived the Poker Club and the Younger Poker Club which took up the cause in 1786. It was not finally settled until 1793.

The Scotch had been roused to the defenceless condition of their country by the alarming appearance of Thurot in Scotch waters in 1759. They had instantly with one voice raised a cry for a national militia. The whole country seemed to have set its mind [Pg 136]on this measure with a singular unanimity. A bill for its enactment was accordingly introduced into the House of Commons in 1760 by two of the principal Scotch members—James Oswald and Gilbert Elliot; They were former ministers of the Crown But it was rejected by a large majority. Because within only 15 years of the Rebellion, the English members were unwilling to entrust the Scotch people with arms. The rejection of the bill provoked a deep feeling of national indignation. The slur it cast on the loyalty of Scotland being resented even more than the indifference it showed to her perils. It was under the influence of this wave of national sentiment that the Poker Club was founded in 1762, to procure for the Scotch at once equality of rights with the English and adequate defences for their country.

The membership of the club included many of the foremost men in the land=

  • great noblemen,
  • advocates,
  • men of letters,
  • spirited county gentlemen on both sides of politics

They cried that they=

  • had their own militia before the Union, and
  • must their own militia again.

Dr. Carlyle says most of the members of the Select Society belonged to it. The exceptions consisting of a few who disapproved of the militia scheme, and of others, like the judges, who scrupled, on account of their official position, to take any part in a political movement. Carlyle gives a list of the members in 1774=

  • the Duke of Buccleugh,
  • Lords Haddington, Glasgow, Glencairn, Elibank, and Mountstuart;
  • Henry Dundas, Lord Advocate;
  • Baron Mure,
  • Hume,
  • Adam Smith,
  • Robertson,
  • Black,
  • Adam Ferguson,
  • John Home,
  • Dr. Blair, Sir James Steuart the economist, Dempster, Islay Campbell, afterwards Lord President; and
  • John Clerk of Eldin.

The first secretary of the club was William Johnstone (Sir William Pulteney). David Hume was jocularly appointed to a sinecure office created for him, the office of assassin. Lest Hume’s good-nature should unfit him for the duties, Andrew Crosbie, advocate (the original of Scott’s “Pleydell”), was made his assistant. The club met at first in Tom Nicholson’s tavern, the Diversorium, at the Cross.

It subsequently moved to more fashionable quarters at the famous Fortune’s in the Stamp Office Close. It was where=

  • the Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly held his levees, and
  • the members dined every Friday at 2pm and sat until 6pm.

However the club may have pulled wires in private, their public activity seems to have been very little; so far at least as literary advocacy of their cause went, nothing proceeded from it except a pamphlet by Dr. Carlyle, and a much-overlauded squib by Adam Ferguson, entitled “A History of the Proceedings in the Case of Margaret, commonly called Sister Peg.”

Smith was one of the original members of the club. From Carlyle’s list, he was a member till 1774. But he was not a member of the Younger Poker Club, established in 1786. In the interval, he had expressed in the Wealth of Nations a strong preference for a standing army over a national militia, after very carefully examining the whole subject.

I do not know:

  • whether his views had changed since 1762, or
  • whether he joined in the agitation for a militia merely as=
  • a measure of justice to Scotland or
  • as an expedient of temporary necessity, without committing himself to any abstract admiration for the institution in general.

But we can hardly think he ever shared that kind of belief in the principle of a militia which animated men like Ferguson and Carlyle, and which, according to them, animated the other members of the club also at its birth.

Ferguson says the club was founded on=

  • “the principle of zeal for a militia and
  • a conviction that these islands’ lasting security for its freedom and independence [Pg 138] was in the valour and patriotism of an armed people”;[102]

During his travels in Switzerland in 1775, Ferguson saw for the first time a real militia. It was the object of his dreams. It actually moved before him in the flesh. Going through their drill, his heart came to his mouth, and he wrote Carlyle= “As they were the only body of men I ever saw under arms on the true principle for which arms should be carried, I felt much secret emotion, and could have shed tears.”[103] He was deeply disappointed a year later with Smith’s apostasy or opposition on this question. After reading the Wealth of Nations, he wrote Smith on April 18, 1776= “You have provoked the Church, universities, and the merchants. Against all of them, I am willing to take your part. But you have also provoked the militia. There I must be against you. The gentlemen and peasants of this country do not need the authority of philosophers to make them negligent of every resource they might have in themselves in the case of certain extremities, of which the pressure may be near. But of this more at Philippi.”

But many besides Smith found their zeal for a militia reduced. When Lord Mountstuart introduced his new Scotch Militia Bill in 1776, it received little support from Scotch members. Its rejection did not excite the feeling roused by the rejection of its predecessor in 1760. Although by now, it came with the galling aggravation that what was refused to the Scotch but was granted to the Irish. The Irish were then the less disliked and distrusted nation of the two. Opinions had grown divided. Old Fletcher of Saltoun’s idea of a citizen army with universal compulsory service was still much discussed. But many now objected to the compulsion. Others like Lord Kames, wanted the universality of the compulsion, rallying to the idea of Fencibles—i.e. regiments to be raised compulsorily by the landed proprietors. Each should furnish men proportional to their valued rent.[105] Smith said a militia formed in this way, like the old Highland militia, was the best of all militias. But he held that= the day was past for militias with one hand on the sword and the other on the plough, and only the division of labour could now answer the art of war, “the noblest of all arts,”. The division of labour answered best for the arts of peace. A standing army answers it by exclusive occupation.

Divided counsels and reduced zeal, along with other causes, led to the Poker Club’s decay. Dr. Carlyle was an active member of the club. He says it began to decline when it transferred itself to more elegant quarters at Fortune’s. Because its dinners became too expensive for the members. Lord Campbell attributes its dissolution definitely to the new taxes imposed on French wines to pay for the American War= “To punish the Government they agreed to=

  • dissolve the ‘Poker,’ and
  • form another society which should exist without consumption of any excisable commodity.”

But he gives no authority for the statement. They could not think of punishing the Government by what was after all only an excellent way of punishing themselves. The wine duty was a real grievance. It was raised five or six times during the club’s existence. People who drank a quart of Burgundy when the duty was less than half-a-crown a gallon, could not do so when the duty rose to 7 shillings.

The Poker Club was revived as the Younger Poker Club in 1786, when the duty on Burgundy was reduced again by the new Commercial Treaty with France.

FOOTNOTES: [75] Southey’s Life of A. Bell, i. 23.

[76] Oswald had just been appointed commissioner for trade and plantations.

[77]Correspondence of James Oswald, p. 124.

[78] Burton’s Life of Hume, i. 375.

[79] Mr. Burton thinks the Society mentioned in this paragraph to be “evidently the Philosophical Society” of Edinburgh.

But it seems much more likely to have been the Literary Society of Glasgow, of which Hume was also a member. Of the Philosophical Society he was himself Secretary, and would therefore have been in the position of giving warning rather than receiving it; nor would he have spoken of sending that Society a paper which he would be on the spot to read himself. I do not know whether Smith was Secretary of the Glasgow Literary Society. But even if he were not it would be nothing strange though the communications of the Society with Hume were carried on through Smith, his chief friend among the members, and his regular correspondent.


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