Dugald Stewart on Adam Smith's Life's Work
Brad Delong (HERE) posts a long extract from Dugald Stewart’s eulogy to Adam Smith which he read on 21 January and 18 March, 1791, to meetings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (where Adam Smith had been a one of the founding Fellows in 1783) summarising some of Smith’s ideas and circumstances by way of a short biography. Readers may find it worthwhile reading and saving for future reference.
While Stewart’s biography, first published in 1795 in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh was the standard biography of Adam Smith through much of the 19th century and early 20th century, and was republished and widely quoted many times under Dugald Stewart’s name: “Account of the Life and Writings of Adam Smith, LL.D”.
The full 1795 eulogy was also published by Oxford University Press in 1980, reproduced by Liberty Press in 1982: eds. W. P. Wightman and J. C. Bryce, Adam Smith, “Essays on Philosophical Subjects”, ed. Ian S. Ross, pp 264-351. It may also be found in many 19th century editions of Smith’s, “Theory of Moral Sentiments”. Also, John Rae, “Life of Adam Smith”, 1895, Macmillan, became the next standard biography, reprinted in 1965 and 1977 by Augustus M. Kelly, with useful and a long sprightly introduction by Jacob Viner.
This was supplemented by W. R. Scott’s “Adam Smith as Student and Professor”, 1937, Jackson, because of Scott’s detailed use of archival materials known and kept by Glasgow University. The most modern researched and definitive biography of Adam Smith is by Ian S. Ross, The Life of Adam Smith, 1978, 2nd ed. 2010, Oxford University Press. No serious graduate student or scholar of Adam Smith can perform in the first division who has not worked their way through the above biographies.
Smith’s first biographers have since been surpassed, in my view and by many others, is by Ian Ross's, biography. Serious scholars should regularly consult Ross’s ‘Life of Smith’ before pontificating about the man and his Works. An excellent intellectual biography of Adam Smith is that by Nicholas Philipson, Adam Smith and Enlightened Life, 2010, Yale. This discusses Smith's Ideas as they were written and readers will gain from consulting it. Unfortunately many modern “experts” appear not even to have read the authoritative biographies by Dugald Stewart (who was an intimate friend family friend – his father, Michael, attended Glasgow University with Smith), or by John Rae, W. S. Scott, and Ian Ross, and it shows in their slack imaginations about Adam Smith.
Meanwhile, newer readers can start with Dugald Stewart’s biographical essay.
I shall quote from one aspect of it as he discusses Smith’s originality in his 18th century context and his 1793 remarks are particularly apposite in regard to the tone of Salim Rashid’s, “The Myth of Adam Smith”, Professor of Economics Illinois, 1998, Edward Edgar.
Dugald Stewart writes:
“Perhaps the merit of such a work as Mr Smith’s is to be estimated less from the novelty of the principles it contains, than from the reasonings employed to support these principles, and from the scientific manner in which they are unfolded in their proper order and connection. General assertions with respect to the advantages of a free commerce, may be collected from various writers of an early date. But in questions of so complicated a nature as occur in political economy, the credit of such opinions belongs of right to the author who first established their solidity, and followed them out to their remote consequences; not to him who, by a fortunate accident, first stumbled on the truth.
Besides the principles which Mr Smith considered as more peculiarly his own, his Inquiry exhibits a systematical view of the most important articles of political economy, so as to serve the purpose of an elementary treatise on that very extensive and difficult science. The skill and the comprehensiveness of mind displayed in his arrangement, can be judged of by those alone who have compared it with that adopted by his immediate predecessors. And perhaps, in point of utility, the labour he has employed in connecting and methodizing their scattered ideas, is not less valuable than the results of his own original speculations: For it is only when digested in a clear and natural order, that truths make their proper impression on the mind, and that erroneous opinions can be combated with success.”
Salim Rashid complains that Adam Smith was a plagiarist because many ideas expressed in Wealth Of Nations had been expressed in some form by earlier and contemporary authors and were not acknowledged as such by Adam Smith. I shall refrain from a detailed line by line comment on Salim’s accusations but I think Dugald Stewart, a close family friend of Smith's, and a Professor of Moral Philosophy and teacher on Political Economy at Edinburgh University (he published his own lectures on Political Economy in 1809, largely based, though not exclusively, on Wealth Of Nations. From these we can see he was widely read in political economy, including the French Physiocrats. He knew Smith well throughout his life.
He actually tackled head on potential plagiarism charges two centuries later, as if they were pertinent to Salim Rashid’s accusations. I think both are worth reading. Readers may make their own judgements, bearing in mind literary customs of Smith's day and the absence of the vast databases on the Net not available for us to to use today. That is what scholarship entails: reading widely and thinking self-critically.
Many thanks to Brad Delong for posting an extract from his course notes and reading.