Chapter 20

London 1777—Appointed Commissioner Of Customs

September 11, 2015

Smith remained at Kirkcaldy from May to December 1776, except for occasional visits to Edinburgh or Dalkeith.

But his thoughts, were again bent on London, as soon as his mother’s health allowed him to leave home. He seems to have enjoyed London. It inspired some hopes in friends like Strahan that he might even settle there permanently. After his departure for Scotland in April, Strahan used to write him of political news keeping him abreast of all that was going on.

On September 16, his letter says=

“I hope your mother’s health will not prevent you from returning hither at the time you propose. You know I once mentioned to you how happy I thought it would make you both if you could bring her along with you to spend the remainder of her days in this Place. but perhaps it will not be easy to remove her so far at this time of her life. I pray you offer her the respectful compliments of my family, who do not forget her genteel and hospitable reception at Kircaldy some years ago.”[275]

The time Smith proposed to return, as he had written Strahan early in September, was November. But he afterwards put the journey off for two months on account of [Pg 316]his own health, which had suffered from his long spell of literary labour, and was in need of more rest. H might have postponed it still further but for the visit being necessary in order to carry the second edition of his work through the press. Early in January 1777, he is already in London, having found lodgings in Suffolk Street, near the British Coffee-House. On March 14, he attended a dinner of the Literary Club, with Fox in the chair, and Gibbon, Garrick, Reynolds, Johnson, Burke, and Fordyce for the rest of the company.[276]

His great work had not yet attracted much public notice. Its merits were being fully recognised by the learned. It was already leaving its mark on the year’s budget. But Smith probably was more talked about in general company at the time for his letter to Strahan than for his Wealth of Nations. In one little literary circle, he was being zealously but most unjustly decried for taking a shabby revenge on a worthy young Scotch poet who had ventured to differ from him in opinion about the merits of the East India Company. Mickle was the author of the popular song “There’s nae luck aboot the hoose,”. He published his translation of the Lusiad of Camoens in 1775. He dedicated the book by permission to the Duke of Buccleugh.

The Duke’s family had been his father’s patrons, and from whose interest he hoped to obtain some advancement himself. When the work appeared the author sent a nicely-bound presentation copy to the Duke, but received no acknowledgment, and at length a common friend waited on his Grace, and, says one of Mickle’s biographers, “heard with the indignation and contempt it deserved, a declaration that the work was at that time unread, and had been represented not to have the merit it had been first said to possess, and therefore nothing could be done on the subject of his mission.” A dedication in those days was often only a more dignified begging letter [Pg 317]. Mickle’s friends declared that he had been cruelly wronged. Because the Duke had done nothing for him and by accepting the dedication, the Duke had prevented the author from going to some other patron who might have done something. Why was the Duke suddenly cool?

Mickle and his little group of admirers declared it was all due to an ill word from the Duke’s great mentor, Adam Smith. They alleged to have borne Mickle a grudge for having in the preface to the Lusiad successfully exposed the futility of some of the views about the East India Company propounded in the Wealth of Nations.[277]

But since the Wealth of Nations was only published in 1776, its opinions obviously could not, even with the vision and faculty divine of the poet, be commented on in the Lusiad, which was published in 1775. The comments on Smith’s views appeared first in subsequent editions of Mickle’s work. They were probably effects of the injury the author fancied himself to have suffered. Anyhow they could not have been its causes. The whole story, so thoroughly opposed to the unusual tolerancy and benevolence of Smith’s character, merits no attention. It sprang manifestly from some imaginary suspicion of a sensitive minor poet. But Mickle used to denounce Smith without stint. Mickle thinking he had an opportunity for retaliation when the letter to Strahan appeared, he wrote a satire entitled, “An Heroic Epistle from Hume in the Shades to Dr. Adam Smith,” He never published it, though he showed it to his friends. Sim saw it. Smith and his noble pupil were rather roughly handled.[278] Mickle afterwards burnt this jeu d’esprit. He very probably came to have better views of Smith. For he seems to have been not only quick to suspect injuries, but ready after a space to perceive his error. He once inserted an angry [Pg 318]note in one of his poems against Garrick. He imagined that Garrick used him ill. but going afterwards to see the great actor in King Lear, he listened to the first three acts without saying a word. After a fine passage in the fourth, heaved a deep sigh, and turning to his companion said, “I wish that note was out of my book.” Had he foreseen the noise his several friends continued to make, even after his death, about this purely imaginary offence on the part of Adam Smith, Mickle would not improbably wish the polemical prefaces out of his book. Smith did not think much of Mickle’s translation of the Lusiad. He held the French version to be much superior,[279] But if he had expressed this unfavourable opinion to the Duke, it could not have been with any thought of injuring a struggling and meritorious young author. He has never shown any such intolerance of public contradiction as Mickle’s friends chose to attribute to him. Dr. James Anderson was the first and true author of Ricardo’s theory of rent. He won Smith’s friendship by a controversial pamphlet challenging some of his doctrines. Bentham won—what is rarer—his conversion from the doctrines impugned, and a very kindly letter still exists which Smith wrote to another hostile critic, Governor Pownall, and which I shall give here, as it was one of the first things he did after now arriving in London. Pownall had been Governor of Massachusetts. He was a man of much activity of mind and experience of affairs He authored respectable works such as the Principles of Polity, the Administration of the Colonies, and the Middle States of America. He was one of the 42 persons to whom the authorship of the letters of Junius has been attributed. He differed strongly from many of Smith’s views, especially from his condemnation of the colonial trade’s monopoly. He wrote a pamphlet in letter form, criticising Adam Smith. Smith received this pamphlet in Edinburgh, just before his departure for[Pg 319] London. When he arrived, he wrote back= — Sir—

I received your letter the day before I left Edinburgh. I arrived here last Sunday. But since then, I have been confined by a cold which I caught on the road. I would have= waited on you in person, and thanked you for your great politeness to me. There is not, I give you my word, in your whole letter a single syllable relating to myself which I could wish to have altered, and the publication of your remarks does me much more honour than the communication of them by a private letter could have done.

In a few days, I hope to= wait on you, and discuss with you the points we agree and disagree on. I do not know if you will think me as a fair disputant. I promise you I will not be an irascible one. In the meantime, I have the honour to be, with the highest respect and esteem, etc.

Adam Smith.

Suffolk Street, January 12, 1777.[280]

The gentleman who forwarded this letter to the editor of the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1795 says that Smith= “altered in his second edition some of the parts objected to, and instead of a reply, sent to Governor Pownall a printed copy of this second edition so altered, and there all contest closed.” However, Smith does not appear to have made any such alterations. In feet, in the second edition he hardly made more than three or four alterations. These were confined to the introduction of an additional fact or two in confirmation of his argument; and Pownall’s and Smith’s differences were on points on which Smith’s views were mature and the Governor’s raw. [Pg 320]

Smith probably remained most of the year 1777 in London. One of his reasons for being there was to see the second edition published. It did not appear till 1778. But he was back in Kirkcaldy again before December. While there, he received from Lord North the appointment of Commissioner of Customs in Scotland. It was vacant through the death of Mr. Archibald Menzies. The offence he unexpectedly gave to the world’s religious sensibilities by his account of Hume’s last days had not interfered, as he feared such an offence would, with his prospects of employment in the public service, nor, what is quite as remarkable, had his political opinions. For he was always a strong Whig. But the preferment was bestowed by a Tory ministry. It is usually attributed to the influence of the Duke of Buccleugh and Henry Dundas, then a member of the ministry as Lord Advocate for Scotland. Their word may have helped. But I believe that the appointment was really a direct reward to the author of the Wealth of Nations for the benefit Lord North. He was Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister. He derived the budget preparation for the years 1777 and 1778, from that book. Smith himself, in a letter to Strahan (p. 323) attributes the appointment largely to Sir Grey Cooper’s favour. He had been Secretary to the Treasury since 1765. He was naturally Lord North’s right-hand man in his budget preparation. When the Wealth of Nations appeared, the English Chancellor of the Exchequer was at his wits’ end for fresh and convenient and easy means of increasing the revenue for the American war. The book was a mine of suggestions to him. He imposed two new taxes in 1777 which he got there= one on man-servants estimated by him to bring in £105,000, though in the event it yielded only £18,000, and the other on property sold by auction, which was to bring in £37,000; but in the budget of 1778, which he would [Pg 321]have under consideration at the very moment of Smith’s appointment, he introduced two new taxes recommended by Smith,— the inhabited house duty, estimated to yield £264,000, and the malt tax, estimated to yield £310,000. Under those circumstances, Smith’s appointment to the Commissionership of Customs is to be regarded not as a private favour to the Duke of Buccleugh, but as a recognition on the part of the Premier of the public value of Smith’s work. the more honourable because rendered to a political opponent who had condemned important parts of the ministerial policy—their American policy, for example—in his recent work.

The appointment was worth £600 a year= £500 for the Commissionership of Customs and £100 for the Commissionership of the Salt Duties. Smith still retained his pension of £300 from the House of Buccleugh. When he obtained this place he thought himself bound in honour to give up his Buccleugh pension, possibly because of the assistance he may have believed the Duke to have given in securing it. But he was informed that the pension was meant to be permanent and unconditional. and that if he were consulting his own honour in offering to give it up, he was not thinking of the honour of the Duke of Buccleugh. Smith now settled in Edinburgh accordingly with an assured income of £900 a year. It was a comparatively princely revenue in Edinburgh when= a Lord of Session had only £700 a year, and a professor in the best chair in the University seldom made as much as £300.

The appointment was made probably in November 1777. Smith did not receive the Commission until January 1778. There were still fees to pay and other business to transact about the matter, which he got Strahan to do for him, occasioning the following letters= — Dear Sir—

The last letter I received from you congratulated me on my appointment as one of the Commissioners of Customs in Scotland. You told me at [Pg 322]the same time that= you had dined that day with Sir Grey Cooper, and you had both spoke very favourably of me. I have received from London several other congratulations of the same kind. But I have not yet received, nor has the office here received, any official information that any such appointment had been made. It is possible that the Commission is not made out because of the fees. If this is the case= you can draw on me for the amount, which I understand to be about £160, or you may write to me, and I shall by return of post remit you the money to London. Please find out the cause of the delay and let me know as soon as possible, that I may at least be at the end of my hope. Remember me most affectionately to all your family, and believe me to be, most faithfully yours,

Adam Smith.

Edinburgh, December 20, 1777.

Neither you nor Mr. Cadell have wrote me anything on the new Edition of my Book.

Is it published? does it sell well? does it sell ill? does it sell at all? I left directions with Mr. Cadell to send copies of it to my friends.

If John Hunter was not among them, put him in ex dono authoris, and tell Cadell to send me the total bill, that I may pay it. I should write to him, but it would only be plaguing him. If you draw upon me make your bill payable at five days’ sight. I return to Kirkaldy on Christmas Day.[281] On returning to Kirkcaldy, Smith again wrote Strahan= —

Dear Sir—

Mr. Charteris, the Solicitor of the Customs here, told me that the fees were paid in Edinburgh and not in London, where Mr. Shadrach Moyes was receiver and agent for the treasury’s officers at London.

I would have sent you the enclosed bill after I received your letter with Mr. Spottiswood’s note. I have drawn the bill for £120 to pay= first, what you have advanced for me; secondly, the exchange between Edinburgh and London; and lastly, the account which I shall owe to Mr. Cadell, after he has delivered the presents of my book’s second edition. To this I beg he will add two copies, handsomely [Pg 323]bound and guilt, one to Lord North, the other to Sir Gray Cooper. I received Sir Gray’s letter. I shall write to him as soon as the new Commission arrives, in order not to trouble him with answering two Letters. I am very grateful to him in this business. I shall not say anything to you of the obligations I owe you for your concern and your diligence on my account. Remember me to Mr. Spottiswood. I shall write to him as soon as the affair is over. Should I send him any present or fee? I am much obliged to him. I want to show my gratitude in any way I can. I would not change my title-page because of my new office. Remember me to Mrs. and Miss Strahan, likewise to the Homes and the Hunters. How does the Painter go on? I hope he thrives.— I ever am, my dear sir, most faithfully and affectionately yours,

Adam Smith.

Kirkaldy, January 14, 1777.[282]

The Mr. Spottiswood in this letter was a nephew of Strahan. He was an ancestor of Strahan’s present successor in his printing business. The Hunters are John and William Hunter. The Homes are John Home and his wife. The painter is Allan Ramsay. In a fortnight the Commission arrived and Smith then wrote Strahan again= — Edinburgh, February 5, 1778.

My Dear Strahan—

I received the Commission in due course. Thank you for= your great attention to my interest. above all, your generosity in so readily forgiving my bad humour which unreasonably broke out upon you because of General Skeenes. He also meant very well. I do not have such sallies often. But I recover from them quickly. I was told that no commission ever came so quickly to Edinburgh. Many have been delayed 3 weeks or a month after appearing in the Gazette. This extraordinary [Pg 324] dispatch I can only impute to the friendly diligence of you and Mr. Spottiswood. Please remember me to him in the most respectful manner.

You have made a small mistake in stating our account. You credit me with £150 only, instead of £170. The first bill for £120, the second for £50. Cadell, however, still remains unpaid. As soon as I understand he has delivered the books, or before it, if he will send me the account of them, I shall send him the money.— I ever am, dear sir, most faithfully yours,

Adam Smith.[283]

I cannot say why Smith was unhabitually irritated with Strahan in this letter. His temper was one of unusual serenity and constancy. and but for his own confession in this letter, we should never have known that it was liable, like others, to occasional perturbations But he appears to= have speedily recovered from it and have been heartily ashamed of it. General Skeenes was probably one of his relations, the Skenes of Pitlour.

The money transactions mentioned refer to his Commission fees. Strahan probably calculated it on the back of the letter to come to £147= 18s. But the reference to Mr. Cadell’s account shows that the second edition of his book had now appeared. It was not published in four volumes octavo, as he originally proposed to Strahan, but, like the former edition, in two volumes quarto, and the price was now raised from £1= 16s. to two guineas, so that under the half-profit arrangement which was agreed on, he must have obtained a very reasonable sum out of this edition. We can understand how, from the four authorised editions published during his lifetime, he made, according to his friend Professor Dalzel, a “genteel fortune,” in those days.


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