Chapter 2

Student at Glasgow College

by Rae


Smith entered Glasgow College in October 1737 and remained there until spring 1740. Back then, the arts curriculum spanned over five sessions. Thus, Smith did not complete the course required for a degree.

He attended three sessions, going through the classes of Latin, Greek, Mathematics, and Moral Philosophy. These classes drew students from afar and had remarkable intellectual activity.

Dr. A. Carlyle came to Glasgow College formoved his divinity classes after he had finished his arts course at Edinburgh.

He says he found a spirit of inquiry and a zeal for learning abroad among Glasgow students that Edinburgh students did not have.

This intellectual awakening was the result of the teaching of three professors:

  1. Alexander Dunlop, Professor of Greek

He was a man of:

  • fine scholarship and taste, and
  • an unusually engaging method of instruction.
  1. Robert Simson, the professor of Mathematics.

He was an original if eccentric genius. He enjoyed a European reputation as the restorer of the geometry of the ancients.

  1. Francis Hutcheson, above all, was a thinker of great original power.

He was an unrivalled academic lecturer.

Smith improved his Greek under Dunlop, but not so much. Dunlop spent most of his first year teaching the elements of Greek grammar with Verney’s Grammar as his textbook. He read a little of one or two easy authors as the session advanced. Most of the students entered his class so ignorant of Greek. He had to read a Latin classic with them for the first three months until they learned enough of the Greek grammar to read a Greek one. In the second session, they were able to accompany him through some of the principal Greek classics. But the time was obviously too short for great things.

Smith then showed a marked predilection for mathematics. Dugald Stewart’s father, Professor Matthew Stewart of Edinburgh, was Smith’s classmate at Glasgow. Dugald Stewart heard his father reminding Smith of a “geometrical problem of considerable difficulty proposed to him as an exercise by Dr. Simson when they first met”. It occupied Smith.

Dr. Maclaine was Smith’s classmate. He became:

  • the embassy chaplain at the Hague,
  • the translator of Mosheim, and
  • author of several theological works.

He told Dugald Stewart of Smith’s fondness for math in those early days. Smith always retained the profoundest veneration for his mathematics professor, Robert Simson.

His Theory of Moral Sentiments, published immediately before his death in 1790, has a high tribute to Simson’s gifts and character. It illustrates his favourite proposition that men of science are much less sensitive to public criticism and much more indifferent to unpopularity or neglect than poets or painters because the excellence of their work allows easy and satisfactory demonstration, whereas the excellence of the poet or painter’s work depends on uncertain judgments of taste. He points to Robert Simson as an example of this:

Mathematicians may have the most perfect assurance of the truth and of the importance of their discoveries. They are frequently very indifferent about the public's reception. The two greatest mathematicians that I have been known to and are the two greatest in my time are Dr. Robert Simson of Glasgow and Dr. Matthew Stewart of Edinburgh. They never seemed to feel the slightest uneasiness from the neglect caused by the public's ignorance of their most valuable works.

When Smith wrote of Simson, he had been long intimate with D’Alembert.

Smith improved his Greek under Dunlop and acquired a distinct ardour for mathematics under Simson’s inspiring instructions.


But Hutcheson had the most powerful and enduring influence on him in Glasgow. Smith called him “the never-to-be-forgotten Hutcheson.” Smith is sometimes considered a disciple of either Hume or Quesnay, but he was really a disciple of Hutcheson. Hutcheson was one of the most impressive lecturers that ever spoke from an academic chair.

Dugald Stewart knew many of Hutcheson’s pupils and says every one of them told of the extraordinary impression of his lectures. He was the first professor in Glasgow to:

  • give up lecturing in Latin and
  • speak to his audience in their own tongue.

He spoke without notes and with the greatest freedom and animation. His eloquence and ideas were rousing. Whatever he touched upon, he treated with a certain freshness and decided originality and provoked the dullest to some reflection. He didn’t stay long in Glasgow because he was bitterly attacked by the older generation outside the walls of the College as a “new light” fraught with dangers to all accepted beliefs. At the same time, he was worshipped like an idol by the younger generation for the new light he brought them.

His immediate predecessor in that chair was Professor Gershom Carmichael. He was the reputed father of the Scottish Philosophy and was still a Puritan of the Puritans. He was wrapped in a gloomy Calvinism, desponding after signs that would never come.

But Hutcheson belonged to a new era which:

  • had turned to the light of nature for guidance, and
  • had discovered by it the good and benevolent Deity of the 18th century which:
    • lived only for human welfare, and
    • had a will which was not to be known from mysterious signs and providences, but from a broad consideration of the greater good of mankind—“the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

Hutcheson was the original author of that famous phrase and was a curse to the exponents of the prevailing theology.

In Smith’s first year at Glasgow, the local Presbytery set the whole University in a ferment by prosecuting Hutcheson for teaching:

  • that the standard of moral goodness was the promotion of the happiness of others, and
  • that we could have a knowledge of good and evil without and prior to a knowledge of God.

His students actually appeared before the Presbytery and defended their hero zealously by word and writing.

Smith was only a freshman and would play no leading part in these proceedings. He certainly adopted Hutcheson’s religious optimism for his own creed, either:

  • when he entered Hutcheson’s class and listened to his lectures on natural theology, or perhaps
  • when he attended his private class on the Sundays for special theological study.

In politics, Hutcheson’s lectures also exercised important practical influence on his students’ general opinion. The principles of religious and political liberty were then so imperfectly comprehended and so little accepted. Their advocacy was still something new.

Principal Leechman was one of Hutcheson’s leading colleagues who said that his lectures on religious and political liberty made the deepest and widest impression. Smith’s strong love of all reasonable liberty must have been first kindled by his contact with Hutcheson.

Dugald Stewart heard Smith admit that it was Hutcheson in his lectures that suggested the theory of the right of property. He used it to teach in his own unpublished lectures on jurisprudence. He founded the right of property on mankind’s general sympathy. It reasonably expected for the occupant to enjoy unmolested the object which he had acquired or discovered. But most probably, his whole theory of moral sentiments was suggested by Hutcheson’s lectures. Perhaps germs of it were suggested when he was passing through the class. For Hutcheson expressly asks: Can we reduce our moral sentiments to sympathy? Hutcheson answered no, because we often approve of the actions of people who we have no sympathy for, such as our enemies. Smith’s added an ingenious attempt to surmount that objection by the theory of sympathy with an impartial spectator.

Hutcheson’s name does not occur in the history of political economy. But he lectured systematically on it as a branch of his course on natural jurisprudence. Smith subsequently did the same.

A discussion of contracts required him to examine the principles of value, interest, currency, etc.

These lectures were fragmentary, but they are remarkable for:

  • showing a grasp of economic questions before his time, and
  • presenting some of Smith’s most characteristic positions with a clear view of their importance.

He is free from the then prevailing mercantilist fallacies about money. His remarks on value reads like a first draft of Smith’s famous passage on value in use and value in exchange.

Like Smith, he holds labour to be the great source of wealth and the true measure of value. He declares every man to have the natural right to use his faculties according to his own pleasure for his own ends in any work or recreation that inflicts no injury on the persons or property of others, except when the public interests may otherwise require. This is just Smith’s system of natural liberty in industrial matters, with a general limitation in the public interest which Smith also approves.

He would impose some particular restraints which Smith might not. On the other hand, he would abolish other particular restraints which Smith, and even Quesnay, would still retain, e.g. the fixing of interest by law. His doctrine was essentially the doctrine of industrial liberty which is identified with Smith.

The French Physiocrats claim that Smith learned that doctrine in their school. However, Smith learned about it in Hutcheson’s classroom at Glasgow some 20 years before any of the Physiocrats had written on the subject. The very first ideas on economic subjects presented to Smith contained in very active and sufficient germ—the very doctrines on liberty, labour, and value on which his whole system was afterwards built.

Smith was just 16 years old then. Hutcheson seems to have recognised Smith’s quality and brought him under David Hume’s personal notice. A letter by Hume to Hutcheson on March 4, 1740 indicates it had some difficulties.

My bookseller has sent a copy of my book to Mr. Smith. I hope he has received it as well as your letter. I have not yet heard what he has done with the abstract. Perhaps you have. I have got it printed in London, but not in the Works of the Learned, there having been an article with regard to my book somewhat abusive before I sent up the abstract.

Mr. Burton thinks that the “Mr. Smith” mentioned in it is Adam Smith. If so, then he must have been away from Glasgow at that time because Hutcheson was communicating with him by letter. But that could be explained by the circumstance that he had been appointed to one of the Snell exhibitions at Balliol College, Oxford. He might have gone home to Kirkcaldy to prepare for residence at the English University, though he did not actually set out for it until June.

These Snell exhibitions were originally founded by an old Glasgow student, a strong Episcopalian, to educate Scotchmen for the service of the Episcopal Church in Scotland. They were naturally the prize of the best student of Glasgow College when they fell vacant. They have been held for two centuries by many distinguished men, including:

  • Sir William Hamilton and Lockhart,
  • Archbishop Tait and
  • Lord President Inglis

The founder decreed that the holders were bound under penalty of £500 “to enter holy orders and return to serve the Church in Scotland.”

Smith must have accepted the Snell exhibition with a view to the Episcopal ministry. But the founder’s original purpose was frustrated by the Revolution settlement. It made “the Church in Scotland” Presbyterian and didn’t leave any Episcopal remnant to serve, which prevented the enforcement of the original condition. The last attempt to impose it was made during Smith’s own tenure of the exhibition, and failed.

In 1744 the Vice-Chancellor and the heads of Colleges at Oxford raised a process in the Court of Chancery for compelling the Snell exhibitioners “to: submit and conform to the doctrines and discipline of the Church of England, and enter into holy orders when capable by the canons of the Church of England” But the Court of Chancery refused to interfere. The exhibitioners were left entirely free to choose their sect, their profession, and their country, as seemed best to themselves. In Smith’s time, the Snell foundation yielded five exhibitions of £40 a year each, tenable for 11 years.

The other names of Smith’s friends among his fellowadam-students at Glasgow that have been preserved were: Professor Matthew Stewart, and

Smith considered him to be the greatest mathematician of his time, after Robert Simson. He seems to have enjoyed infrequent opportunities of renewing his acquaintance with Dr. Maclaine.

Dr. William Thompson was a historical writer of the last century.

Smith’s remark to him implies that he had communicated with him earlier.

Dr. Watson was the historian of Philip II. Thompson, Dr. Watson, and Dr. Maclaine, seem all to have been writing the history of the Peace of Utrecht. Smith knew all three.

He said:

  • Watson was much afraid of Maclaine.
  • Maclaine was just as much afraid of Watson.

But he could have told them that they should fear Thompson the most.


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