Chapter 7

Among Glasgow Folk

September 24, 2015

In Glasgow, Smith was a teacher and a learner. The conditions of time and place were most favourable for his instruction.

Had he remained at Oxford, he would probably never have been an economist. had he not spent so many of his best years in Glasgow, he would never have been such an eminent one. He grew into a great economist amid=

  • the thickening problems of the Clyde’s rising trade, and
  • the daily discussions they occasioned among the town’s enterprising and intelligent merchants..

The Glasgow of the mid-18th century was very different from today. It was a mere provincial town of 23,000 people. Broom still grew on the Broomielaw. A few cobles were the only craft on the river. The rude wharf was the resort of idlers, watching the fishermen on the opposite side=

  • cast for salmon, and
  • draw up netfuls on the green bank.

The Clyde was not deepened until 1768. Before that, the whole tonnage dues at Glasgow were only £8 a year. A single masted vessel would not be seen for weeks. St. Enoch Square was a private garden. Argyle Street was an ill-kept country road. The town herd still went his rounds every morning with his horn. He called the cattle from the Trongate and the Saltmarket to their [Pg 88]pasture on the common meadows the Cowcaddens district, which is now densely-populated.

Glasgow in these its younger days struck every traveler chiefly for its beauty. It was the most beautiful city in Great Britain. [Mrs. Montagu] It was the cleanest, most beautiful, and best built city in Britain, aside from London. [Defoe said a few years before that] Mrs. Bellamy approached it to open the new theatre in 1764. The magnificence of the buildings and the beauty of the river elated her heart [Mrs. Bellamy] Smith himself once suffered for praising its charms. It was at a London table. Johnson was present. He did not like Smith nor Glasgow. He cut him short by asking “Pray, sir, have you seen Brentford?” Boswell took a pride in Glasgow himself. He called it “a beautiful city” He afterwards expostulated with the doctor for this rough interruption= “Now, sir was not that rude?” The full rudeness is only apparent when we remember that Brentford was then a byword for dreariness and dirt. Thomson in the Castle of Indolence calls it “a town of mud.” However, when Johnson visited Glasgow, he joined the troop of its admirers. Boswell took the opportunity to put him then in mind of his question to Smith, and whisper to him, “Don’t you feel some remorse?”

But Glasgow had already begun its transition from the small provincial to the great commercial capital. It was therefore at a stage of development of special value to the philosophical observer. It was still only a quiet but picturesque old place. It nestled about the Cathedral and the College and two fine but sleepy streets in which carriers built their haystacks out before their door. It was carrying on a trade which was even then cosmopolitan. The ships of Glasgow were in all the world’s waters. Its merchants had won the lead in at least the West India tobacco trade. They [Pg 89]were founding fresh industries every year with the greatest enterprise. Glasgow’s prosperity is a fruit of the Union which first= opened the colonial markets to Scotch merchandise, and enabled the Clyde merchants to profit by the advantages of their natural situation for trading with the American plantations. Before the mid-18th century, the Clyde had become the chief European emporium for American tobacco which foreign countries were not then allowed to import directly. 3/4 of the tobacco on arrival was immediately transhipped by the Glasgow merchants for the seaports of= the Mediterranean, the Baltic, and the North Sea.

As they widened their connections abroad, they naturally developed their industries at home. They founded the Smithfield ironworks. They imported iron from Russia and Sweden to make hoes and spades for the negroes of Maryland. They founded the Glasgow tannery in 1742/ Pennant thought it an amazing sight. It employed 300 men making saddles and shoes for the plantations. They opened= the Pollokshaws linen print-field in 1742, copper and tin works in 1747, the Delffield pottery in 1748. They began to manufacture= carpets and crape in 1759, silk in 1759, and leather gloves in 1763. They opened= the first Glasgow bank—the Ship—in 1750, and the second—the Arms—in 1752. They first began to improve the Clyde’s navigation by the Act of 1759. They built a dry dock at their harbour of Port Glasgow in 1762; In 1768 they= deepened the Clyde up to the city, and began (for this also was mainly their work) the canal to the Forth for their trade with the Baltic. This was a period of unique commercial enterprise and expansion. Gibson was the historian of Glasgow. We can easily believe him when he states that after 1750 “not a beggar was to be seen in the streets,” and “the very children were busy” We can as easily understand Smith when, contrasting Glasgow and Edinburgh among other places, he says the residence of a [Pg 90]few spirited merchants is a much better thing for the common people of a place than the residence of a court.

It was those spirited merchants who had then so much to do with the making of Glasgow, that had also something to do with the making of Adam Smith. Plain businessmen of today sometimes smile at the “Virginian Dons” and “tobacco lords” of the 18th century as they picture them gathering to the Glasgow Plainstanes at the hour of Change in the glory= of scarlet cloaks, cocked hats, and gold-headed canes. The plain citizens of that time all making way for their honours as they passed. But there was much enlightenment and sagacity concealed under that finery. Mrs. Montagu visited Glasgow in 1767. She wrote Sir A. Mitchell, the Ambassador, that she was more delighted with Glasgow than with any other commercial town she had seen. Because gain did not usurp people’s whole attention, but “the sciences, the arts, and the love of agriculture had their share.”[65] Their fortunes were small compared with the present standard. Sir John Dalrymple spoke of three of the foremost merchants of Glasgow. One of them was John Glassford, the richest man in Glasgow. Sir John Dalrymple computes that they had £250,000 between the three. Dr. Reid explained the anxiety caused in Glasgow by the American troubles in 1765. He says Glasgow owners had property in the American plantations amounting to £400,000. But these figures meant= large handling and large dealings in those times, and perhaps more energy, mind, and character than the bigger figures of today. Commercial men in Glasgow still look back to John Glassford and Andrew Cochrane as perhaps the greatest merchants the Clyde has seen.

Andrew Cochrane was Smith’s particular friend among them. Dr. Carlyle tells that “Dr. Smith acknowledged his obligations to this gentleman’s information when he was collecting materials for his Wealth of Nations; The junior merchants who have flourished [Pg 91]since his time and extended their commerce far beyond what was then dreamt of, confess with respectful remembrance that it was Andrew Cochrane who first opened and enlarged their views.”[66] Dr. Carlyle informs us that Cochrane founded a weekly club in the “forties”—political economy club Its “express design was to= inquire into the nature and principles of trade in all its branches, and communicate knowledge and ideas on that subject to each other,” Smith became a member of this club after coming to reside in Glasgow. This was probably the first political economy club in the world, for Carlyle was in Glasgow in 1743, it is of that period he speaks when he says, “I was not acquainted with Provost Cochrane at this time, but I observed that the members of this society had the highest admiration of his knowledge and talents.”

Cochrane was one of the remarkable men of that time. In Humphrey Clinker, Smollett describes him as= “one of the first sages of the Scottish kingdom,” and “a patriot of a truly Roman spirit.” He was Provost of Glasgow during the Rebellion. The Government and the Horse Guards slumbered and dawdled. They let Prince Charlie march= from the Highlands to Edinburgh, and from Edinburgh up to the heart of England Cochrane had already raised two regiments in Glasgow to resist the invader. However, this same dawdling Government, from mistaken suspicions of Scottish loyalty, refused to permit him to arm. The Prince, on his return from England, actually occupied Glasgow, and taxed it severely. But Cochrane’s sagacious management piloted the city through the crisis. It did not yield to the popular Prince’s arts nor provoked him to hostilities. Looking back at these difficulties when he laid down the Provostship a few years later, he said, “I thank my God that my magistracy has ended without reproach.” His correspondence was published by the Maitland Club. It has some [Pg 92]terse descriptions of the “prodigious slavery” he underwent, “going through the great folks” in London day after day for two months trying to recover from the Government some compensation for the Prince’s exactions. His banking firm was Cochrane, Murdoch and Co. It was generally known as the Glasgow Arms Bank because they printed the Glasgow arms on their notes. The Bank of Scotland infamously attempt to “break” it in 1759 by= first collecting its notes for some time, and then suddenly presenting the total collected for immediate payment. But the Glasgow Arms bank paid in sixpences instead. The agent of the Bank of Scotland presented £2,893 of notes on December 14. After 34 days’ attendance, he wrote his employers that he had only received £1,232, because “the partners vied with each other in gaining time by miscounting and other low arts. When the partners became wearied or ashamed of the task, their porter, a menial servant, would act the part of teller.”[67]

Cochrane founded the Political Economy Club. Dr. Carlyle tells us that the only other member of it besides Smith and Cochrane is Dr. Wight, Professor of Ecclesiastical and Civil History. But it met once a week all the 13 years Smith resided in Glasgow. He must have discussed many commercial problems during that time. Some of the practical questions of Glasgow merchants would be discussed at the club. Some of them were on the removal of trade restrictions. But the restrictions which those Glasgow merchants were anxious to remove were restrictions on the import of raw materials for their manufactures, such as iron and linen yarn, and manufacturers, of course, are not necessarily free-traders [Pg 93]because they want free import of raw materials. That was advocated as strongly from the old mercantilist standpoint as it is now from the free-trade one; It was merely sanctioning a little addition to our imports in order to produce a much greater addition to our exports.

In 1750, Provost Cochrane was in correspondence with Smith’s friend, James Oswald, M.P. He concerted parliamentary action for the entire removal of the import duty on American iron. The Glasgow ironworks was called the nailery Mr. Cochrane was connected with it. It used then 400 tons of iron in the year. The iron had to be all imported at a high price from Russia and Sweden, because the native ores of Scotland were not then discovered. American iron, by an iniquitous piece of preferential legislation in favour of the English manufacturer, was allowed to come duty free into English, but not into Scotch seaports. Cochrane wants Oswald to amend the law to “allow bar iron from our colonies to be imported to Scotland duty free.” He says= “It would save our country very great sums, and not hurt the landed interest. It would lower the price of iron, and consequently of all our manufactures, which would increase the consumpt and sale it would serve for ballast to our ships from North America, and when tobacco is scarce, fill up part of the tonnage; would increase our exports, and no way interfere with our neighbours in the South.”[68] That language might be held indifferently by the mercantilist and the free-trader.

The Glasgow merchants succeeded in abolishing the duty on foreign linen yarns in 1756. They seem certainly have had no thought of free trade, or probably anything else but their own obvious interest as manufacturers. They never dreamt of= abolishing the export bounty on home-made linen cloth or repealing the law of 1748 which= gave their [Pg 94]own Glasgow linen factory a considerable lift forbade the import of foreign linen, and fined husbands for letting their wives wear it. Still the discussion of these subjects would open up various points of view. This duty on foreign linen yarns is one which Smith himself, free-trader though he was, was against abolishing, not out of any favour for the flax-growers, but for the protection of the poor women who made their livelihood by spinning yarn scattered in the cottages.

Mr. Cochrane and Mr. Glassford were both bankers and merchants. They were in communication with Baron Mure and Sir James Steuart, the economist, soon after Smith left Glasgow. Sir James would almost certainly be a member of the club. because he resided in the neighbourhood, but as he was only pardoned a few months before Smith resigned his chair, it is improbable that the two economists ever met together at the club meetings. But the questions the two leading merchants were then discussing with Sir James would have been occasionally subjects of conversation at the club during the time of Smith’s attendance. They asked what are the effects of paper money on= prices? on the currency? on the exchanges with other countries? What was the effect of small notes? what of notes not payable on demand? They differed on various points. For example, Glassford= would let the banks issue notes for any sums they liked, had no objection to the small 10-shilling and 5-shilling notes which were common then. Cochrane would abolish all notes for less than 1 pound,[69]. Smith, at least in 1776, would abolish all notes less than 5 pounds.[70] But they all had a firm grasp of the true nature and operation of money.

Smith was a founder [Pg 95] of the Literary Society of Glasgow. It was a general debating society composed mainly of professors in the University= Cullen, Black, Wilson the astronomer; Robert Simson, Leechman the divinity professor and principal; Millar, nearly the whole Senatus; It had a few merchants or country gentlemen of literary tastes such as= William Craufurd, the friend of Hamilton of Bangour; William Mure of Caldwell, M.P. for Renfrewshire; Sir John Dalrymple, the historian, He was a proprietor in the West country; John Callander of Craigforth, the antiquary; Thomas Miller, Town Clerk of Glasgow. He was afterwards Lord Justice-Clerk of Scotland; Robert Foulis, the printer; James Watt, He said he derived much benefit from it. Robert Bogle of Shettleston. He was the promoter of the theatre, David Hume, and the Earl of Buchan He was elected while residing as a student in 1762.

The Literary Society was founded in 1752 They met every Thursday evening from November to May at 6= 30pm. A few extracts from its minutes have been published by the Maitland Club,[71] We learn that Smith was one of the first contributors to its proceedings. Its first session was on January 23, 1753. Early in it, Adam Smith is stated to have read an account of some of Mr. David Hume’s Essays on Commerce. These essays had then just appeared. They had probably been seen by Smith before their publication. For in September 1752, Hume writes Smith asking him for any corrections on the old edition of the Political Essays, with which the Commercial Essays were incorporated. Hume submitted one of these Commercial Essays in 1750 to Oswald and Mure. When we find him in 1752 asking for suggestions from Smith on the printed essays. We can infer that he [Pg 96]had also asked and received suggestions on the new unpublished essays.

The Maitland Club volume gives us no information about the papers read in this society after the first six months, except those read by Foulis. but no doubt Smith read other papers in the remaining ten years of his connection with the society. Its debates were often very keen. Professor Millar was a most brilliant debater. Dr. Reid was the father of the common-sense philosophy. The metaphysical and theological combats between Millar and Dr. Reid were famous in their day. On one occasion, tradition informs us that Smith engaged in a strenuous discussion on some subject for a whole evening against the entire assembly. Having lost his point by an overwhelming majority, was overheard muttering to himself, “Convicted but not convinced.”[72]

The Glasgow professors had= their high controversies in the Literary Society and their keener but less noble contentions in the Senate Hall. After those, they used to unbend their bows in the simple convivialities of “Mr. Robin Simson’s Club.” Mr. Robin Simson was the venerable Professor of Mathematics. He was equally celebrated and beloved, known worldwide for his rediscovery of Euclid’s porisms. He rarely quitted Glasgow College. In the College, the delight of all hearts for his= character’s warmth, breadth, and uprightness, his manner’s charming simplicity, and his weighty and sparkling conversation’s richness. His impressions of Simson first gave Smith the idea that mathematicians had a specific amiability and happiness of disposition. These placed them above the lower world’s jealousies, vanities, and intrigues. For 50 years, Simson’s life was spent almost entirely within the two quadrangles of Glasgow College, between= the rooms he worked and slept in, the tavern at the gate, where he ate his meals, and the College gardens, where he took his daily walk of a fixed number of hundred paces, of which, according [Pg 97]to some well-known anecdotes, he always kept count as he went, even under the difficulties of interruption Mr. Robin was unmarried. He never went into general society. After his geometrical labours were over, he ended the day with a rubber of whist in the tavern at the College gate. Here one or another of the professors used to join him, and the little circle eventually ripened into a regular club It met for supper at this tavern every Friday evening. It went out to Anderston for dinner on Saturday. It was then known as the Anderston Club, as well as by its former designation from the name of its founder. Anderston was then quite a country village. It was very soon afterwards made busy enough with the cotton factory of James Monteith. But at this time Tames Monteith’s father was using the spot as a market garden. However, it contained a cosy little “change-house,” capable of providing the simple dinner then in vogue. The dinner consisted of only one course. Mr. M’George says the first dinner of two courses ever given in Glasgow was given in 1786; Principal M’Cormick of St. Andrews wrote Dr. Carlyle around that date, praises the dinner-parties of St. Andrews to the skies. But he says nobody gave two courses except Mrs. Prebendary Berkeley. Mrs. Prebendary Berkeley was the bishop’s daughter-in-law. The Anderston dinner consisted every week of the same dish. It was invariably chicken-broth. Smollett classes it as one of Scotland’s five national dishes along with= haggis, singed sheepshead, fish and sauce, and minced collops. He describes it as= “a very simple preparation enriched with eggs in such a manner as to give the air of a spoiled fricassee. Despite its appearance, it is very delicate and nourishing.” The chicken-broth was accompanied with a tankard of sound claret. The cloth was removed for whist and a bowl of punch. Smith was not considered an eligible partner at whist. Ramsay of Ochtertyre says if an [Pg 98]idea struck him in the middle of the game he “either renounced or neglected to call,”[73]. He must have in this way given much provocation to the amiability of Simson. Simson was always keenly on the alert at cards. He could never forgive a slip of his partner in the game. After cards, the rest of the evening was spent in cheerful talk or song, in which again Simson was ever the leading spirit. He used to sing Greek odes set to modern airs. The members never tired of hearing them again. For he= had a fine voice and threw his soul into the rendering. Professor Robison of Edinburgh was one of his students. He twice heard him at this club sing a Latin hymn to the Divine Geometer, apparently of his own making. The tears stood in the worthy old gentleman’s eyes with the emotion he put into the singing of it. His conversation was remarkably animated and various. For he knew most other subjects nearly as well as he did mathematics. He was always full of hard problems suggested by his studies of them. He threw into the discussion much whimsical humour and many well-told anecdotes. The only subject debarred was religion. Professor Traill says any attempt to introduce that peace-breaking subject in the club was checked with gravity and decision. Simson was invariably chairman. So much of the life of the club came from his presence that when he died in 1768, the club died too.

Three of the younger men who shared this homely Anderston board—Adam Smith, Joseph Black, and James Watt—would have important effects on mankind’s progress, as any men of their generation. Watt specially mentions Smith as one of the principal figures of the club. He says their conversation, “besides the usual subjects with young men, [Pg 99]turned principally on literary topics, religion, morality, belles-lettres, etc., and to this conversation my mind owed its first bias towards such subjects in which they were all my superiors, I never having attended a college, and being then but a mechanic.”[74] According to this account, religion was not proscribed. But Professor Traill’s assertion is so explicit that probably Watt’s recollection errs. However, it is another sign of the liberal spirit that then animated these Glasgow professors to find them welcoming on a footing of perfect equality one who, as he says, was then only a mechanic, but whose mental worth they had the sense to recognise. Dr. Carlyle was invited by Simson to join the club in 1743. He says the two chief spirits in it then were= Hercules Lindsay, the Professor of Law, and James Moor, the Professor of Greek. Both were still members in Smith’s time. Lindsay acted as Smith’s substitute in the logic class. He was a man of force and independence. He had suffered much abuse from the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh for= giving up the old practice of delivering his lectures in Latin, and refusing to return to it. Moor was the general editor of the famous editions of the classics printed by his brother-in-law, Robert Foulis. Dugald Stewart says he was a man= of “a gaiety and levity foreign to this climate,” much addicted to punning, and noted for his gift of ready repartee. He was always smartly dressed and powdered. One day as he was passing on the Plainstanes, he overheard two young military officers observe one to the other, “He smells strongly of powder.” Moor said “Don’t be alarmed, my young soldier, it is not gunpowder.” A great promoter of the merriment of the club was Dr. Thomas Hamilton. He was Professor of Anatomy and the grandfather of Sir William, the metaphysician. He is thus described in some verses by Dr. John Moore, the author of Zelucco—

He who leads up the van is stout Thomas the tall, Who can make us all laugh, though he laughs at us all; But entre nous, Tom, you and I, if you please, Must take care not to laugh ourselves out of our fees.

Then we remember what Jeffrey says of “the magical vivacity” of the conversation of Professor John Millar.

FOOTNOTES= [65] Add. MSS., 6856.

[66] Carlyle’s Autobiography, p. 73.

[67] Fleming’s Scottish Banking, p. 53.

[68] Oswald’s Correspondence, p. 229.

[69]Caldwell Papers, ii. 3.

[70]Wealth of Nations, Book II. chap. ii.

[71]Notices and Documents illustrative of the Literary History of Glasgow, p. 132.

[72] Strang’s Clubs of Glasgow, 2nd ed. p. 314.

[73] Ramsay’s Scotland and Scotsmen in Eighteenth Century, i. 468.

[74] Smiles’s Lives of Boulton and Watt, p. 112.


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