Chapter 28

The Population Question

September 3, 2015

Dr. Richard Price had recently stirred a sensation by his attempt to prove that England’s population=

  • was declining, and
  • had actually declined nearly 30% since the Revolution.

The first to go against him was William Eden. Eden’s Fifth Letter to the Earl of Carlisle was published in 1780. It exposes the weakness of Price’s statistics. It argues that both England’s population and trade had increased. Price replied to these criticisms in the same year.

In 1785, Eden contemplated=

  • to return to the subject and
  • to publish another work on it.

He wrote to Smith about it. The two following letters on this population question of the 18th century were likely written to the Earl of Carlisle. Though neither of them bears any name or address. Price had drawn his alarmist conclusions from rough estimates based on the revenue returns. From a comparison of the hearth-money returns before the Revolution with the window and house tax returns of his own time, he guessed at the number of dwelling-houses in the country,. From the number of dwelling-houses he guessed at the number of inhabitants by simply supposing each house to contain five persons.

He further tried to support his conclusion by= figures drawn from bills of mortality, and references to= colonial emigration, consolidation of farms, the growth of London, and the progress of luxury. [Pg 399]

Smith thought very poorly of those ill-founded speculations, even of their author generally. He called Eden’s attention to a population return relative to Scotland. It was a sounder basis for an estimate of the population than the statistics which Price relied on. This was a return of the number of examinable persons in every parish of Scotland It was obtained in 1755 by Dr. Alexander Webster, at the desire of Lord President Dundas, for the Government. Public catechisings were then, and in many parishes are still, part of the ordinary duties of the minister. The minister visited each hamlet and district of his parish successively for catechisings every year. Consequently, every minister kept a list of the examinable persons in his parish. These people were old enough to answer his questions on the Bible or Shorter Catechism. None were too old to be exempt.

Webster procured copies of these lists for every parish in Scotland. When he added to each a certain proportion to represent the number of persons under examinable age, he knew fairly accurately the country’s population. He procured the lists for 1779 and 1755. He ascertained from a comparison of the two that Scotland’s population had remained virtually stationary during those 25 years.

The increase in the commercial and manufacturing districts were counterbalanced by a reduction in the purely agricultural districts, due to the consolidation of farms. At least, that was the impression of the officials of the Ministers’ Widows’ Fund, through whom the correspondence on the subject with the ministers had been conducted. They doubted an observation of a contrary import. It implied that Scotland’s population was increasing Smith heard Webster make in one of those hours of merriment for which that popular and useful divine seems destined to be remembered when his public services are forgotten.

Smith’s first letter=

[Pg 400]


It took me so long to answer your letter of the 8th inst. that I am afraid you think I have forgotten or neglected it. I hoped to send one of the accounts by the post after I received your letter. But some difficulties have occurred so you will have to wait a few days for it. In the meantime, I send you a note extracted from Mr. Webster’s book by his clerk. The clerk= helped him make it, and has made several corrections on it since. My letters as a Commissioner of the Customs are paid at the Custom House. My correspondents receive them duty free. I am enclosing them, as you direct, under Mr. Rose’s cover. I want to tell him that the net revenue from the customs in Scotland is at least four times greater than it was seven or eight years ago. It has been increasing rapidly these past four or five years. This year’s revenue has overleaped by at least half the revenue of the greatest former year. I think it will increase still further. The causes of this increase will take a longer discussion than this letter will admit. Price’s speculations cannot fail to sink into the neglect that they have always deserved. I have always considered him as= a factious citizen, a most superficial philosopher, and an unable calculator. Your most faithful humble servant,

Adam Smith.

Custom House, Edinburgh, December 22, 1785.

I would be very glad if you would comment on my book.[339]

The second letter followed in a few days= — Edinburgh, January 3, 1786.


The accounts of Scotland’s imports and exports which you wanted are sent by this day’s post to Mr. Rose.

Since I wrote to you last I have= conversed with= Sir Henry Moncreiff, and He is Dr. Webster’s successor as collector of the fund for [Pg 401] the maintenance of clergymen’s widows, and his clerk He was also Dr. Webster’s clerk. He was very useful to the Doctor in making the very book which I mentioned to you in a former letter. They both think that the conversation I had with Dr. Webster a few months before his death must have been the effect of= a momentary and sudden thought and not of any serious or deliberate consideration or inquiry. It was= at a very jolly table, in the midst of much mirth and jollity which he loved and promoted, among his many other useful and amiable qualities. They told me that= in the year 1779, a copy of the Doctor’s book was made out by his clerk for the use of my Lord North. at the end of that book, the Doctor had subjoined a note to the following purpose= That though between 1755 and 1779 the numbers in the great trading and manufacturing towns and villages were considerably increased= the Highlands and Islands were much depopulated, and even the low country, by the enlargement of farms, in some degree depopulated. He imagined that the population must be nearly the same at both periods. They both believe that this was the last deliberate judgment of Dr. Webster. The lists mentioned in the note are the lists of ‘examinable persons’ They are persons of seven or eight years old and above, who are supposed fit to be publicly examined on religious and moral subjects. Most of our country clergy keep examination rolls of this kind. My Lord North will be happy to accommodate you with the use of this book. It is a great curiosity. Though the conversation I mentioned to you had shaken my faith in it a little. I am glad now to suppose, without much reason. Your most obedient humble servant,

Adam Smith.[340]

The fourth edition of the Wealth of Nations appeared in 1786. It had no changes in the text from the previous one. But Smith added an advertisement acknowledging the very great obligations he had been under to Mr. Henry Hope, the banker at Amsterdam, for= the most distinct and liberal information on The Bank of Amsterdam. It is a very interesting and important subject. The printed accounts of it were ever satisfactory or even intelligible to me. Henry Hope is so well known in Europe. It so honorable to have information from him. That is why I have to acknowledge him in this new edition of my book.

Smith had now reached his grand climacteric. According to the old belief, his 63rd year was the last and most dangerous of the periodical crises for a man. The winter of 1786-87 laid him so low with a chronic obstruction of the bowels that Robertson wrote Gibbon they were in great danger of losing him. That was the winter Burns was in Edinburgh. This illness prevented him from meeting Burns. Burns obtained a letter of introduction to Smith from their common friend Mrs. Dunlop. But he writes her on April 19 that when he called, he found Smith had gone to London the day before, having recovered. Smith left to consult John Hunter. However, he was still in Edinburgh in March. He wrote Bishop Douglas a letter introducing one of his Fifeshire neighbours, Robert Beatson. He was the author of the well-known and very useful Political Index. Beatson had been an officer of the Engineers. But he had= retired on half-pay in 1766 and become an agriculturist in his native county. While there, he compiled his unique and valuable work. He published it in 1786 and dedicated to Adam Smith. A new edition was called for within a year. Beatson proposed to add some new matter, and asked for Bishop Douglas’ advice= [Pg 403]

Dear Sir—

This letter will be delivered to you by Mr. Robert Beatson of Vicars Grange, in Fifeshire. He is a very worthy friend of mine. He is my neighbour in the country for more than 10 years. He has recently published a very useful book called a Political Index. It has been very successful. He now proposes to republish it with some additions. He wants your advice on= these additions, and every other part of his book. You are the fittest man to give him advice on this subject. I therefore= introduce him to you and recommend him to your best advice and assistance. You will find him a very good-natured, well-informed, inoffensive, and obliging companion. I was exceedingly vexed and not a little offended when I heard that you had passed through this town some time ago without= calling on me, or letting me know that you were in our neighbourhood. However, my very fierce anger is now a good deal abated. I can forgive the past if you promise to behave better in the future. This year, I am in my grand climacteric. My health has been worse. However, I am getting better and better everyday. With good pilotage, I can weather this dangerous promontory of human life. Afterwards, I hope to sail smoothly for the remainder of my days.— Affectionately yours,

Adam Smith.

Edinburgh, March 6, 1787.[341]


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