Chapter 21

Edinburgh 1778

September 10, 2015

On settling in Edinburgh, Smith took a house in the Canongate—Panmure House. It was at the foot of Panmure Close, one of the steep and narrow wynds that descend from the north side of the Canongate towards the base of the Calton Hill.

This house was his home for the rest of his days. He died in it. The Canongate was the old Court end of Edinburgh. At the end of the 18th century, it was still its fashionable residential quarter. Although Holyrood had then long lain deserted (Hamilton of Bangour)

A virtuous palace where no monarch dwells. The Scottish nobility had their town-houses in its gloomy courts. Great dowagers and famous generals still toiled up its cheerless stairs. Panmure House itself had been the residence of the Panmure family before Smith occupied it. It became the residence of the Countess of Aberdeen after his death. Most of his own more particular friends too—the better aristocracy of letters and science—lived about him here. If it was to Edinburgh that “taste and philosophy seemed to have retired from the smoke and hurry of London,” it was in Canongate’s ancient smoke and leisure that they found their sanctuary. (Gibbon) Robertson flitted out to the Grange House; Black—Smith’s special [Pg 326]crony in this Edinburgh period—to the present Blind Asylum in Nicolson Street, then a country villa; Adam Ferguson to a place at the Sciennes. It was only two miles from the Cross But it was thought so remote by the people of the compact little Edinburgh of those days, that his friends always called it Kamtschatka, as if it lay in the ends of the earth. But Kames and Hailes still lived in New Street Sir John Dalrymple and Monboddo and many other notabilities in St. John Street Cullen in the Mint Dugald Stewart in the Lothian Hut (the town-house of the Marquis of Lothian) in the Horse Wynd.

Panmure House is still standing. It is a much more modern structure than nearby houses. It was built towards the mid-18th century. Its rooms are now mostly tenantless. Its garden is a cooper’s yard. It wears to this day an air of spacious and substantial comfort which is entirely lacking in the rest of the neighbourhood. William Windham, the statesman, dined in it repeatedly when he was in Edinburgh with Burke in 1785. He thought it a very stately house for a philosopher. “House magnificent and place fine.” (Windham’s diary) One can still imagine how it would appear when= the plastered walls were white, and the eye looked over the long strip of terraced garden on to the soft green slopes of the Calton. There was then no building of any kind on or about the Calton Hill, except the Observatory. Dugald Stewart was very fond of rural scenery. He always said that the great charm of his own house a few closes up was its view of the Calton crags and braes.

Smith brought over=

  • his mother
  • his cousin, Miss Douglas, from Kirkcaldy.
  • the youngest son of his cousin, Colonel Douglas of Strathendry, A few months later,

He was to attend school and college with a view to the bar. Smith made him his heir. After visiting them, Windham makes the same note twice in his diary, “Felt strongly the impression of a family completely Scotch.” Smith’s house [Pg 327]was noted for its simple and unpretending hospitality. He liked to have his friends about him without formal invitation. Few strangers of distinction visited Edinburgh without being entertained in Panmure House. His Sunday suppers were still remembered and spoken of in Edinburgh when M’Culloch lived there as a young man. Scotch Sabbatarianism had then not reached the rigour that came in with the evangelical revival in the beginning of the 18th century. The Sunday supper was a regular Edinburgh institution. Even the Evangelical leaders patronised it. Lord Cockburn and Mrs. Somerville both speak with very agreeable recollections of the Sunday supper parties of the Rev. Sir Harry Moncreiff. Boswell mentions being invited to one by another Evangelical leader, Dr. Alexander Webster.

Smith’s three great joys were= his mother, his friends, his books. He had a library of about 3000 volumes. It had the most varied collection in subjects. Professor Shield Nicholson saw much of it. He says= “I was most struck by the many books of travel and poetry. Some of them there were more than one edition, and occasionally éditions de luxe. I had hoped to find marginal notes or references which might have thrown light on the authorities of some passages in the Wealth of Nations (for Smith gives no references). But even the ingenious oft-quoted author of the Tracts on the Corn Laws has escaped without a mark. At the same time, pamphlets have been carefully bound and indexes prefixed in Smith’s own writing.”[284]

Mr. James Bonar has been able to collect a list of 2/3 of Smith’s books—about 1000 books, or 2200 volumes.[285] Nearly 1/3 of the whole are in French. Another 1/3 are in Latin, Greek, and Italian. [Pg 328] A little more than 1/3 in English. According to Mr. Bonar’s analysis, 1/5 were on Literature and Art. 1/5 were Latin and Greek classics. 1/5 on Law, Politics, and Biography 1/5 on Political Economy and History; the remaining 1/5 on Science and Philosophy. Works in theology and prose fiction were almost completely absent. Hume’s Dialogues on Natural Religion and Pascal’s Pensées belong as much to philosophy as theology. The following belong as much to history= Jeremy Taylor’s Antiquitates Christianae, Father Paul Sarpi’s History of the Council of Trent, and Ruchat’s Histoire de la Reformation de la Suisse except these, the only representatives of theology on Smith’s shelves were= the English Bible, Watson’s edition, 1722. It was probably his parents’ family Bible. a French translation of the Koran, and Van Maestricht’s Theologia. The only sermons other than those of Massillon in French, are the Sermons of Mr. Yorick. Those sermons, however, were the only representative of Sterne. Goldsmith was represented by his poems, but not by his fiction. Defoe, Fielding, Richardson, and Smollett were not represented at all. One or two French novels were there. But except Gulliver, which came in with the complete edition of Swift’s works in 1784, the only English novel Smith had was the Man of the World, by his friend Henry Mackenzie. It is perhaps stranger that he ignored the novel than that he ignored theology, for the novel was then a very rising and popular literary form, and Smith began life as a professed literary critic. His mind seems to have been too positive to care much for tales. On the other hand, of the Greek and Latin classics he not unfrequently had several different editions. For example, he had eight of Horace, who seems to have been an especial favourite.

Like most men who are fond of books, he seems to have bound them well, and often elegantly. Smellie, the printer, says that the first time he happened to be in[Pg 329] Smith’s library he was “looking at the books with some degree of curiosity, and perhaps surprise, for most of the volumes were elegantly, and some of them superbly bound,” when Smith, observing him, said, “You must have remarked that I am a beau in nothing but my books.”[286] M’Culloch, however, had seen the books. He doubts whether their condition matched those mentioned by Smellie. He says that while they were neatly and elegantly bound in some cases, he saw few superb bindings.

The Custom House was on the upper floors of the Royal Exchange, in Exchange Square, off the High Street. Kay, standing in his shop over at the corner of the Parliament Close, must often have seen Smith walk past from his house to his office in the morning as depicted in one of his portraits. He was in a light-coloured coat, probably linen; knee-breeches, white silk stockings, buckle shoes, and flat broad-brimmed beaver hat; walking erect with a bunch of flowers in his left hand, and his cane, held by the middle, borne on his right shoulder, as Smellie tells us was Smith’s usual habit, “as a soldier carries his musket.” When he walked= his head always moved gently from side to side, and his body swayed “vermicularly,” as if at each alternate step “he meant to alter his direction, or even to turn back.” (Smellie) Often, his lips would be= moving all the while, and smiling in rapt conversation with invisible companions. He was very noticeable as he went up and down the High Street. He used to tell himself the observations of two market women of him as he marched past them one day. “Hegh sirs!” said one, shaking her head significantly. “And he’s weel put on too!” rejoined the other. They were surprised that someone like him, from his dress, was someone left by his friends to walk abroad alone.

There were five Commissioners in the Scotch Board of[Pg 330] Customs. But Smith’s colleagues were none of them men of any public reputation at the time. They are now mere names. But Secretary of the Board, R.E. Phillips lived to be 104. He was buried in the same grave with Adam Smith in Canongate Churchyard. The work in the office was mostly of a routine and simple= considering appeals from merchants against the local collector’s assessments; the appointment of a new officer here, the suppression of one there; a report on a projected colliery; a plan for a lighthouse, a petition from a wine importer, or the owner of a bounty sloop; a representation about the increase of illicit trade in Orkney, or the appearance of smuggling vessels in the Minch; the dispatch of troops to repress illegal practices at some distillery, or to watch a suspected part of the coast; the preparation of the annual returns of income and expenditure, the payment of salaries, and transmission of the balance to the Treasury.

Smith attended to those duties with uncommon diligence. He was so regular an attendant at the Custom House that he could “take the play for a week at any time” without giving offence or provoking comment. (Smth’s letter to the Principal of Glasgow College in 1787 on his appointment to the Rectorship) He was a very conscientious and on the whole a satisfactory administrator. Though he may have been in some things slower than a clerk bred to business would have been, and caused occasionally a ludicrous mistake through his incidental absence of mind. Sir Walter Scott relates two anecdotes illustrative of that weakness, on the authority of one of Smith’s colleagues on the Board of Customs. Having one day to sign an official document as Commissioner, Smith, instead of signing his own name, wrote an imitation of the signature of the Commissioner who had written before him. The [Pg 331]other story, though, possibly enough, embellished unconsciously by the teller in some details, is yet of too distinct and peculiar a character to be easily rejected, for the same reason will best be given in Scott’s own words= —

“That Board (the Board of Customs) had in their service as porter a stately person. He was dressed in a huge scarlet gown or cloak covered with frogs of worsted lace. He held in his hand a staff about seven feet high as an emblem of his office. He used to mount guard before the Custom House when a Board was to be held. It was the etiquette that as each Commissioner entered, the porter would= go through a salute with his staff of office. It resembled that which officers used formerly to perform through their spontoon. then marshal the dignitary to the meeting hall. This ceremony had been performed before Smith perhaps 500 times. Nevertheless one day, as he was about to enter the Custom House, the motions of this janitor seem to have attracted his eye without knowing their character or purpose. Suddenly, he began to imitate his gestures as a recruit does those of his drill serjeant. The porter having drawn up in front of the door, presented his staff as a soldier does his musket. The Commissioner, raising his cane and holding it with both hands by the middle, returned the salute with the utmost gravity. The inferior officer was much annoyed. He levelled his weapon, wheeled to the right, stepping a pace back to give the Commissioner room to pass, lowering his staff at the same time in token of obeisance. Dr. Smith, instead of passing on, drew up on the opposite side and lowered his cane to the same angle. The functionary, much out of consequence, next moved upstairs with his staff upraised, while Smith followed with his bamboo in precisely the same posture. He was intent on placing his foot exactly on the same spot of each step which had been occupied by the officer who preceded him. At the hall’s door, the [Pg 332]porter again drew off, saluted with his staff, and bowed reverentially. Smith again imitated his motions, and returned his bow with the most profound gravity. When the Doctor entered the apartment, the spell under which he seemed to act was entirely broken. Our informant was very much amused. He had followed him the whole way and had some difficulty convincing him that he did anything extraordinary.”[287]

This inability to recollect in a completely waking state what had taken place during the morbid one separates this story from all the rest that are told of Smith’s absence of mind. For his friends used always to observe of his fits of abstraction what a remarkable faculty he possessed of recovering, when he came to himself, long portions of the conversation that had been going on around him while his mind was absent. But here there is an entire break between the one state and the other; the case seems more allied to trance, though it doubtless had the same origin as the more ordinary fits of absence, and, like them, was only one of the penalties of that power of profound and prolonged concentration to which the world owes so much; it was thinker’s cramp, if I may use the expression. In one way Smith took more interest in his official work than ordinary Commissioners would do, because he found it useful to his economic studies. In 1778, he wrote Sir John Sinclair wanted to borrow the French inquiry Mémoires concernant les Impositions. “Smith consulted the book in his private studies and in his present employment many times” Smith used to admit “that he= derived great advantage from the practical information from his official situation would not have otherwise known or believed how essential practical knowledge was to the thorough understanding of political subjects.”[288] (Sir John Sinclair) This is [Pg 333]confirmed by the fact that most of the additions and corrections in the 3rd edition of the Wealth of Nations are connected with the Customs. The 3rd edition was first published after his settlement in the Customs.

Still his friends were perhaps right in lamenting that the duties of this office, light though they really were, used up his time and energy too completely. It prevented him from his proposed great work on government. “They required little exertion of thought, but they were enough to waste his spirits and dissipate his attention. Now that his career is closed, it is impossible to reflect on the time they consumed without lamenting that it had not been employed in labours more profitable to the world and more equal to his mind. During the first years of his residence in this city, his studies seemed to be entirely suspended. His passion for letters served only to= amuse his leisure and animate his conversation. He felt old age very early. It reminded him finally= when it was too late, what he still owed the public and his own fame. He has long ago collected the principal materials of the works he had announced. Only a few years of health and retirement were probably needed to give them that systematical arrangement in which he delighted.”[289](Dugald Stewart)

His leisure seems to have been passed during these later years of his life very largely in the study of the Greek poets. He frequently remarked to Dugald Stewart, when found in his library with Sophocles or Euripides open before him on the table, that of all the amusements of old age, the most grateful and soothing was the renewal of acquaintance with the favourite studies and the favourite authors of our youth.[290] Besides, the work of [Pg 334]composition seems to have grown really more arduous to him. He was always a slow composer. He had never acquired increased facility from increased practice. Much of his time too was now given to the enjoyments of friendship. Besides his Sunday suppers, Smith founded a weekly dining club with the help of= Black the chemist and Hutton the geologist They were his closest friends during this last period of his career. It met every Friday at 2pm in a tavern in the Grassmarket. Dr. Swediaur, the Paris physician, spent some time in Edinburgh in 1784 researching with Cullen. He was made a member of this club during his stay. He writes Jeremy Bentham= “We have a club here which consists only of philosophers. Dr. Adam Smith, Cullen, Black, Mr. M’Gowan, etc., belong to it. I am also a member of it. Thus I spend once a week in a most enlightened and agreeable, cheerful and social company.” He says he is intimately acquainted with Smith. He tells Bentham that he “is quite our man”—in opinion and tendencies, I presume. The following were constant members of the club= Ferguson,though he never dined out after being struck with paralysis in 1780. Henry Mackenzie, Dugald Stewart, Professor John Playfair, Sir James Hall the geologist; Robert Adam, architect; Adam’s brother-in-law, John Clerk of Eldin, inventor of the new system of naval tactics; and Lord Daer—the “noble youthful Daer”— He was the first lord Burns ever met. He taught the poet that in a lord he after all but “met a brither,” with nothing uncommon about him.

Except good sense and social glee, An’ (what surprised me) modesty. Lord Daer was the eldest son of the fourth Earl of Selkirk. On the outbreak of the French Revolution, a few years [Pg 335]after Burns met him, became one of the most ardent of the “Friends of the People”; He was intimate with Mirabeau. He spoke to Mirabeau for the king’s safety. He was told that the French would not commit the English blunder of cutting off their king’s head. because that was the usual way to establish a despotism.[291] Great expectations were cherished of Lord Daer’s future, but they were defeated by his premature death in 1794. The Mr. M’Gowan mentioned by Swediaur is little known now. But he was an antiquary and naturalist, a friend and correspondent of Shenstone, Pennant, and Bishop Percy. M’Gowan kept house with Andrew Lumisden, Prince Charlie’s Secretary. He was a friend of his youth. He had returned to him after long political exile. He was also a Smith’s warm friend. His portrait by Tassie is one of the few relics of Smith’s household effects which still exist. Lumisden had been Hamilton of Bangour’s companion in exile at Rouen. He was also a member of this club.

The club’s chief delight was to listen to the conversation of its three founders. “All the three had= great talents, enlarged views, and extensive information, without any of the stateliness and formality of men of letters. All three were easily amused. Their sincere friendship had never been darkened by the least shade of envy. It would be hard to find an example where= everything favourable to good society was more perfectly united, and everything adverse more entirely excluded.”[292] (Playfair) This friendship of Smith, Black, and Hutton, if not so famous as the friendship between Smith and Hume, was not less really memorable. Each of them had founded—or done more than any other single person to found—a science. They may be called the fathers of= modern chemistry, modern geology, and modern [Pg 336]political economy. For all their great achievements, they were yet men of the most unaffected simplicity of character. In other respects, they were very different from one another. But their differences only= knit them closer together, and made them more interesting to their friends.

Black was= a man of fine presence and courtly bearing, grave, calm, polished, well dressed, speaking, what was then rare, correct English without a trace of Scotch accent, and always with sense and insight even in fields beyond his own. Smith used to say that= he never knew a man with less nonsense in him than Dr. Black, and that he was often indebted to his better discrimination in the judgment of character, a point in which Smith, not only by the general testimony of his acquaintance, but by his own confession, was by no means strong, inasmuch as he was, as he acknowledges, too apt to form his opinion from a single feature. Now the judgment of character was, according to Robison, Black’s very strongest point. Robinson says= “Dr. Black’s most uncommon natural talent was his judgment of human character. He could express his opinion in a single short phrase, which fixed it in the mind never to be forgotten.”[293] He was a very brilliant lecturer. Brougham was one of his students. He said that he had heard Pitt, Fox, and Plunket. But for mere intellectual gratification, he preferred sitting again in the chemistry classroom “while the first philosopher of his age was the historian of his own discoveries.” He was adored by his students. But he was the object of scarce less veneration and pride to his fellow-citizens. Lord Cockburn tells us how even the wildest boys used to respect Black. “No lad, could ever be irreverent towards a man so pale, gentle, elegant, and illustrious.” (Lord Cockburn)

Hutton was the reverse of Black.[Pg 337] He was= a dweller outdoors, a man of strong vitality and high spirits, careless of dress and appearance, setting little store by the world’s prejudices or fashions, and speaking the broadest Scotch, but overflowing with views and speculations and fun, and with a certain originality of expression, often very piquant. Playfair says= Every face brightened, when Hutton entered a room. He had been bred a doctor, though he never practised, but, devoting himself to agriculture, had been for years one of the leading improvers of the Border counties, He is said to have been the first man in Scotland to plough with a pair of horses and no driver, the old eight-ox plough being then in universal use. Between his early chemical studies and his later agricultural pursuits, his curiosity was deeply aroused as he walked about the fields and dales, not merely on the composition but the origin of the soils and rocks and minerals that lay in the crust of the globe. He never ceased examining and speculating until he completed his theory of the earth which became a new starting-point for all subsequent geological research. He was a bold investigator. Playfair distinguishes him finely in this respect from Black by remarking that “Dr. Black hated nothing so much as error, and Dr. Hutton nothing so much as ignorance. The one was always afraid of going beyond the truth, and the other of not reaching it.” He went little into general society. But Playfair says that in the more private circles which he preferred he was the most delightful of companions.

The club’s conversation was often. Its compositions were scientific. But Professor Playfair says it was= always free and never didactic or disputatious “The club was the resort of the strangers who visited Edinburgh for anything connected to art or science. It derived from them an extraordinary degree of vivacity and interest.”[294]

Its name was the Oyster Club. Those great philosophers did not spurn the delights of more ordinary mortals [Pg 338]. But probably no three men could be found who cared less for the pleasures of the table. Hutton was an abstainer; Black was a vegetarian. His usual fare was “some bread, a few prunes, and a measured quantity of milk diluted with water.” Smith’s only weakness was for lump sugar (Scott). Trivial though it be, under the shelter of the great novelist’s example and of Smith’s own biographical principle that nothing about a great man is too minute not to be worth knowing.

Scott, as an eye-witness, says= “One evening Smith put an elderly maiden lady, who presided at the tea-table, to sore confusion by utterly neglecting her invitation to be seated. He walked round and round the circle, stopping ever and anon to steal a lump from the sugar basin. Miss Jean Douglas, the venerable spinster, placed it on her own knee, as the only way to secure it from him. His appearance mumping the eternal sugar was something indescribable.” It is probably the same story Robert Chambers gives in his Traditions of Edinburgh. It may have been so, for Scott, as a school companion of young David Douglas, would very likely have been occasionally at Panmure House.


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