At Oxford

September 28, 2015

Smith left Scotland for Oxford in June 1740, riding the whole way on horseback. He told Samuel Rogers many years afterwards that, from the moment he crossed the Border he was much struck with=

  • the richness of the country he was entering, and
  • the great superiority of its agriculture over that of his own country.

Scotch agriculture was not born in 1740, even in the Lothians. The country everywhere was very bare and waste. He was reminded on the day of his arrival at Oxford, that even its cattle were still lean and poor, compared with England’s fat oxen.

The Monthly Review has a story of his absence of mind. A writer once said that Smith has been fond of relating himself whenever a particular joint appeared on his own table. The first day he dined in the hall at Balliol, he fell into a reverie at table. For a time, he forgot his meal.

The servitor=

  • roused him to attention and
  • told him he had better fall to, because he had never seen such a piece of beef in Scotland as the joint then before him.

Smith’s nationality caused him worse trouble at Oxford than this good-natured gibe.

He matriculated at the University on July 7. Professor Thorold Rogers has collected the few particulars about Smith’s residence at Oxford from official records. He gives us the matriculation [Pg 19]entry= “Adamus Smith e Coll. Ball., Gen. Fil. Jul. 7mo 1740,"[10] He mentions that it is written in a round school-boy hand. It is a style of hand which Smith retained to the end. Smith himself said that literary composition never grew easier to him with experience. Apparently, neither did handwriting. His letters are all written in the same big round characters, connected together manifestly by a slow, difficult, deliberate process.

He remained at Oxford until August 15, 1746. After that day, his name no longer appears in the Buttery Books of the College. But up until that day, he resided at Oxford continuously from the time of his matriculation. He did not leave between terms. He was thus six years on end away from home. A journey to Scotland was in those days a serious and expensive undertaking. It would have taken more than half Smith’s exhibition of £40 to alone pay for a trip to Kirkcaldy and back. When Professor Rouet of Glasgow was sent up to London a few years later to push on the tedious 20 years’ lawsuit between Glasgow College and Balliol about the Snell exhibitions, the single journey cost him £11= 15s. It excluded his personal expenses of 6s. 8d. a day.[11] Out of his £40 a year, Smith had to pay about £30 for his food. Mr. Rogers mentions that his first quarter’s maintenance came to £7= 5s. It was about the usual cost of living at Oxford then. Then the tutors seem to have ceased to do any tutoring. They still took their fees of 20s. a quarter all the same Smith’s remaining £5 would be little enough to meet other items of necessary expenditure. Salmon’s Present State of the Universities was published in 1744. It shows that= an Oxford education during Smith’s residence at Oxford cost £32 a year minimum. no commoner in the University spent less than £60.

Smith’s name does not appear in Bliss’s list of Oxford graduates. Although in Mr. Foster’s recent Alumni Oxonienses other particulars are given about him, his graduation is not mentioned. Professor Rogers has discovered evidence in the Buttery Books of Balliol. It seems to prove that Smith actually took the degree of B.A., whatever was the explanation of the apparent omission of his name from the official graduation records. In those Buttery Books, he is always styled Dominus from and after the week ending April 13, 1744. Dominus was the usual designation of a B.A. In April 1744, Smith would have kept the 16 terms that were then the only qualification practically necessary for that degree. He had possibly omitted some step needed for the formal completion of the graduation.

Smith’s residence at Oxford fell in a time when learning lay there under a long and almost total eclipse. This dark time seems to have lasted most of that century. Crousaz visited Oxford around the beginning of the century. He found the dons as ignorant of the new philosophy as the savages of the South Sea. Bishop Butler came there as a student 20 years later. He could get nothing to satisfy his young thirst for knowledge except “frivolous lectures” and “unintelligible disputations.” A generation later, he could not even have got that. For Smith tells us in the Wealth of Nations that the lecturers had then given up all pretence of lecturing. A foreign traveller described a public disputation he attended at Oxford in 1788. He said the Præses Respondent and three Opponents all sat consuming the statutory time in profound silence, absorbed in the novel of the hour. Gibbon resided there not long after Smith. He tells that= his tutor neither gave nor sought to give him more than one lesson the common-room’s conversation, which he heard as a gentleman commoner, never touched any point of literature or scholarship. Instead it “stagnated [Pg 21]in a round of= College business, Tory politics, personal anecdotes, and private scandal.” A few years after Gibbon, Bentham has the same tale to tell. It was absolutely impossible to learn anything at Oxford. The years he spent there were the most barren and unprofitable of his life. Smith’s own account of the English universities in the Wealth of Nations, though only published in 1776, was substantially true of Oxford during his residence there 30 years before. Every word of it is endorsed by Gibbon as the word of “a moral and political sage who had himself resided at Oxford.” Thus nobody= was then taught, or could find “the proper means of being taught the sciences which those incorporated bodies are supposed to teach.” The lecturers had ceased lecturing. “the tutors contented themselves with teaching a few unconnected shreds and parcels” of the old unimproved traditional course “they commonly taught even these very negligently and superficially” They were= paid independently of their personal industry responsible only to one another “every man consented that his neighbour might neglect his duty provided he himself were allowed to neglect his own” the general consequence was= a culpable dislike to improvement and indifference to all new ideas These a rich and well-endowed university the “sanctuary where exploded systems and obsolete prejudices find shelter after they have been hunted out of the world.” Smith came from a small university in the North. It was cultivating letters with such remarkable spirit on its little oatmeal wisely dispensed. He concluded that the stagnation of learning in England’s wealthy universities was due to their wealth being distributed on a bad system.

However, unlike Gibbon and Bentham, Smith never thought that his six years there [Pg 22] were wasted. Boswell and others have called him ungrateful for his censures on Oxford. But that charge is unreasonable because the censures were true and useful. I refer to it here merely to point out that Smith felt and publicly expressed gratitude for his residence at the University of Oxford. He does so in his letter to the Principal of Glasgow College in 1787 accepting the Rectorship. He enumerated the claims which Glasgow College had upon his grateful regard. He expressly mentions the fact that it had sent him as a student to Oxford. In truth, his time was not wasted at Oxford. He did not allow it to be wasted. He read deeply and widely in many subjects and in many languages. He read and thought for six years. For that best kind of education, the negligence of tutors and lecturers was probably better than their assiduity.

For this business of quiet reading. Smith seems to have been happily situated in Balliol. Balliol was not then a reading college as it is now. Some of the other Oxford colleges claimed that they kept the lamp of learning lit even in the darkest days of last century. But Balliol is not one of them. It was chiefly known then for the violence of its Jacobite opinions. Only a few months after Smith left it, a party of Balliol students celebrated the birthday of Cardinal York in the College. They= rushed out into the streets, mauled every Hanoverian they met, and created such a serious riot that they were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for it by the Court of King’s Bench. The master of the College was Dr. Theophilus Leigh. For this grave offence, he and the other authorities thought the culprits were entitled to indulgence because of the anniversary they were celebrating. They decided that the case would be sufficiently met by a Latin imposition. However, if Balliol was not more enlightened than any of the other colleges of the day, it [Pg 23]had one great advantage. It had one of the best college libraries at Oxford. The Bodleian was not then open to any member of the University under the rank of a bachelor of arts of two years’ standing. Smith was only a bachelor of arts of two years’ standing for a few months before he finally quit Oxford. He could have made little use of the Bodleian and its then unrivalled treasures. But in his own college library at Balliol, he was allowed free range. He availed of his privilege with too great assiduity, to the injury of his health.

His studies took a new turn at Oxford. He laid aside the mathematics for which he liked at Glasgow. He gave his strength to the ancient Latin and Greek classics, possibly for no better reason than that he could get nobody at Oxford to take the trouble of teaching him the former, and that the Balliol library furnished him with the means of cultivating the latter by himself. He did so to some purpose. For all through life, he showed a knowledge of Greek and Latin literature uncommonly extensive and exact. Dalzel was the professor of Greek at Edinburgh. He was one of Smith’s most intimate friends during those latter years of his life when he was generally found with one of the classical authors before him. It conformed with his theory that the best amusement of age was to renew acquaintance with the writers who were the delight of one’s youth. Dalzel always used to speak to Dugald Stewart admiring Smith’s= readiness and accuracy in remembering the works of the Greek authors, and mastery over the niceties of Greek grammar.[12] This knowledge must have been acquired at Oxford. Smith had read the Italian poets greatly too, and could quote them easily. He paid special care to the French classics because of their style. He spent much time in [Pg 24] trying to improve his own style by translating their writings into English.

There was only one fruit in the garden of which he might not freely eat, and that was the productions of modern rationalism. A story has come down which, though not mentioned by Dugald Stewart, is stated by M’Culloch to rest on the best authority, and by Dr. Strang of Glasgow to have been often told by Smith himself, to the effect that Smith was one day seen reading Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature. It was probably the very copy presented to him by Hume at Hutcheson’s suggestion. He was punished by a severe reprimand and the confiscation of the evil book. It is at least entirely consistent with all we know of the spirit of darkness then ruling in Oxford. that it should be considered an offence of peculiar aggravation for a student to read a great work of modern thought which had been actually placed in his hands by his professor at Glasgow. The only wonder is that Smith escaped so lightly. A few years before, three students were expelled from Oxford for coquetting with Deism. A fourth had his degree deferred for two years. He was required in the interval to translate into Latin as a reformatory exercise the whole of Leslie’s Short and Easy Method with the Deists.

Except for the great resource of study, Smith’s life at Oxford seems not to have been a very happy one. He was in poor health and spirits a considerable part of the time, according from the brief extracts of his letters published by Lord Brougham. When Brougham was writing his account of Smith he got the use of a number of letters written by Smith to his mother from Oxford between 1740 and 1746. They probably exist somewhere still. But he found them to contain nothing interesting. He says “they are almost all upon mere family and personal matters most [Pg 25]of them on his linen and other such necessaries, but all show his strong affection for his mother.” However, the very brief extracts Brougham makes from them inform us that Smith was then suffering from"an inveterate scurvy and shaking in the head.” He used the new remedy of tar-water which Bishop Berkeley had made the fashionable panacea for all diseases. At the end of July 1744, Smith says to his mother= “I am quite inexcusable for not writing to you oftener. I think of you everyday. But always defer writing until the post is just going. Then sometimes business or company, but oftener laziness, hinders me. Tar-water is a remedy very much currently in vogue here for almost all diseases. It has perfectly cured me of an inveterate scurvy and shaking in the head. I wish you’d try it. I think it might help you.” However, in a subsequent letter, he states= that he had the scurvy and shaking as long as he remembered anything, and that the tar-water had not removed them. On November 29, 1743 he makes a confession= “I am just recovered from a violent fit of laziness. It has confined me to my elbow-chair these three months."[14] Brougham thinks these statements show symptoms of hypochondria. But they probably indicate no more than the ordinary lassitude and exhaustion from overwork. At around the same age, Hume had thrown himself into a like condition by four or five years’ hard reading. He also complains of “laziness of temper” and scurvy. The shaking in the head continued to attend Smith all his days.

But low health was only one of the miseries of his estate at Oxford. Balliol College was in his day a stepmother to her Scotch sons Their existence there was made very uncomfortable= at the hands of the mob of young gentlemen they lived with even [Pg 26]more by the unfair and discriminating harshness of the College authorities themselves. Out of 100 students then residing at Balliol= at least eight were Scotch four on the Snell foundation and four on the Warner. The Scotch eight seem to have been always treated as an alien and intrusive faction. The Snell exhibitioners were continually complaining to the Glasgow Senatus about it. The Glasgow Senatus thought them perfectly justified in complaining. In a letter on May 22, 1776, they go over the whole long story of grievances. The Glasgow Senatus tell the Master and Fellows of Balliol plainly that the Scotch students had= never been “welcomely received” at Balliol, and never been happy there. If an English undergraduate committed a fault, the authorities never thought of blaming anyone but himself. But when one of the eight Scotch undergraduates did so= his sin was remembered against all the other seven reflections were cast on the whole body; The Senatus says that it was “a circumstance which has been much felt during their residence at Balliol.” Their common resentment against this injustice of tribal accountability naturally provoked a common resistance. The Senatus says that it developed “a spirit of association” which “has always caused much trouble to Balliol and Glasgow Colleges."[15] In 1744, when Smith himself was one of them, the Snell exhibitioners wrote an account of their grievances to the Glasgow Senatus. They stated “what they wanted to be done towards making their residence more easy and advantageous”[16]. In 1753, Dr. Leigh, the master of Balliol, tells the Glasgow Senatus that [Pg 27] the Snell exhibitioners wanted to be transferred to some other college, because they “totally disliked Balliol."[17]

This idea of a transference continued to be mooted. In 1776, it was actually proposed by the heads of Balliol to the Senatus of Glasgow to transfer the Snell foundationers altogether to Hertford College. But the Glasgow authorities thought this would be merely a transference of the troubles, and not a remedy for them. The exhibitioners would get no better welcome at Hertford than at Balliol if they came as “fixed property” instead of coming as volunteers They could never lose their national peculiarities of dialect and their habits of combination if they came in a body. Accordingly, in the letter of May 22, 1776,[18] they recommended the arrangement of leaving each exhibitioner to choose his own college. It was an arrangement which had just then been strongly advocated as a general principle by Smith in his newly-published Wealth of the Nations. on the broader ground that it would encourage a wholesome competition between the colleges, and so improve the character of the instruction given in them all.

If the daily relations between the Scotch exhibitioners at Balliol and the College authorities and members were unhappy, it may explain why Smith made almost no permanent friends at Oxford. Few men were ever by nature more entirely formed for friendship than Smith. At every other stage of his history, we invariably find him= surrounded by troops of friends, and deriving from their company his chief solace and delight. But here he is six or seven years at Oxford, at [Pg 28]the season of manhood when the deepest and most lasting friendships of a man’s life are usually made. Yet we never see him in all his subsequent career holding an hour’s conversation by word or letter with any single Oxford contemporary except Bishop Douglas of Salisbury. Bishop Douglas had been a Snell exhibitioner himself. With Douglas, moreover, he had many other ties. Douglas was a Fifeshire man. He might have been a remote kinsman. He was a friend of Hume, Robertson, and all Smith’s Edinburgh friends. He was, like Smith, a member of the famous Literary Club of London. He is celebrated in that character by Goldsmith in the poem “Retaliation,” as= “the scourge of impostors, the terror of quacks.” The names of those who might be Smith’s contemporaries at Balliol in Mr. Foster’s list of Alumni Oxonienses were undistinguished people. Smith and Douglas themselves are the only two who seem to have made any mark in the world.

An allusion has been made to the Scottish dialect of the Snell exhibitioners. Smith seems to have lost the broad Scotch at Oxford without contracting the narrow English, like Jeffrey. The Englishmen who visited Smith after visiting Robertson or Blair, were struck with the pure and correct English he spoke in private conversation. He appears to have done so without giving any impression of constraint.

Smith returned to Scotland in August 1746. But his name remained on the Oxford books for some months after his departure. It showed apparently that he had not on leaving come to a final determination against going back. His friends at home are said to have been most anxious that he should continue at Oxford that would naturally seem to open to him the best opportunities in the ecclesiastical career for which they are believed to have destined him, or in the university career for which nature [Pg 29] designed him. But both careers were practically barred against him by his objection to taking holy orders. The majority of the Oxford Fellowships then were only granted on condition of ordination. Smith concluded that the best prospect for him was to return to Scotland. He never appears to have set foot in Oxford again. When he became Professor at Glasgow, he was the medium of communication between the Glasgow Senate and the Balliol authorities. But beyond the occasional interchange of letters which this business required, his relations with the Southern University appear to have continued completely suspended. Nor did Oxford, on her part, ever show any interest in him. Even after he had become perhaps her greatest living alumnus, she did not offer him the ordinary honour of a doctor’s degree.


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