Adam Smith

After two centuries, Adam Smith remains a towering figure in the history of economic thought. Known primarily for a single work, An Inquiry into the nature an causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), the first comprehensive system of political economy, Smith is more properly regarded as a social philosopher whose economic writings constitute only the capstone to an overarching view of political and social evolution. If his masterwork is viewed in relation to his earlier lectures on moral philosophy and government, as well as to allusions in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) to a work he hoped to write on “the general principles of law and government, and of the different revolutions they have undergone in the different ages and periods of society”, then The Wealth of Nations may be seen not merely as a treatise on economics but as a partial exposition of a much larger scheme of historical evolution.

Early Life

Unfortunately, much is known about Smith’s thought than about his life. Though the exact date of his birth is unknown, he was baptised on June 5, 1723, in Kikcaldy, a small (population 1,500) but thriving fishing village near Edinburgh, the son by second marriage of Adam Smith, comptroller of customs at Kikcaldy, and Margaret Douglas, daughter of a substantial landowner. Of Smith’s childhood nothing is known other than that he received his elementary schooling in Kirkcaldy and that at the age of four years he was said to have been carried off by gypsies. Pursuits was mounted, and young Adam was abandoned by his captors. “He would have made, I fear, a poor gypsy”, commented his principal biographer.

At the age of 14, in 1737, Smith entered the university of Glasgow, already remarkable as a centre of what was to become known as the Scottish Enlightenment. There, he was deeply influenced by Francis Hutcheson, a famous professor of moral philosophy from whose economic and philosophical views he was later to diverge but whose magnetic character seems to have been a main shaping force in Smith’s development. Graduating in 1740, Smith won a scholarship (the Snell Exhibition) and travelled on horseback to Oxford, where he stayed at Balliol College. Compared to the stimulating atmosphere of Glasgow, Oxford was an educational desert. His years there were spent largely in self-education, from which Smith obtained a firm grasp of both classical and contemporary philosophy.

Returning to his home after an absence of six years, Smith cast about for suitable employment. The connections of his mother’s family, together with the support of the jurist and philosopher Lord Henry Kames, resulted in an opportunity to give a series of public lectures in Edinburgh - a form of education then much in vogue in the prevailing spirit of “ improvement”.

The lectures, which ranged over a wide variety of subjects from rhetoric history and economics, made a deep impression on some of Smith’s notable contemporaries. They also had a marked influence on Smith’s own career, for in 1751, at the age of 27, he was appointed professor of logic at Glasgow, from which post he transferred in 1752 to the more remunerative professorship of moral philosophy, a subject that embraced the related fields of natural theology, ethics, jurisprudence, and political economy.


Smith then entered upon a period of extraordinary creativity, combined with a social and intellectual life that he afterward described as “ by far the happiest, and most honourable period of my life”. During the week he lectured daily from 7:30 to 8:30 am and again thrice weekly from 11 am to noon, to classes of up to 90 students, aged 14 and 16. (Although his lectures were presented in English, following the precedent of Hutcheson, rather than in Latin, the level of sophistication for so young an audience today strikes one as extraordinarily demanding.) Afternoons were occupied with university affairs in which Smith played an active role, being elected dean of faculty in 1758; his evenings were spent in the stimulating company of Glasgow society.

Among his circle of acquaintances were not only remembers of the aristocracy, many connected with the government, but also a range of intellectual and scientific figures that included Joseph Black, a pioneer in the field of chemistry, James Watt, later of steam-engine fame, Robert Foulis, a distinguished printer and publisher and subsequent founder of the first British Academy of Design, and not least, the philosopher David Hume, a lifelong friend whom Smith had met in Edinburgh. Smith was also introduced during these years to the company of the great merchants who were carrying on the colonial trade that had opened to Scotland following its union with England in 1707. One of them, Andrew Cochrane, had been a provost of Glasgow and had founded the famous Political Economy Club. From Cochrane and his fellow merchants Smith undoubtedly acquired the detailed information concerning trade and business that was to give such a sense of the real world to The Wealth of Nations.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments

In 1759 Smith Published his first work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Didactic, exhortative, and analytic by turns, The Theory lays the psychological foundation on which The Wealth of Nations was later to be built. In it Smith described the principles of “human nature “, which, together with Hume and the other leading philosophers of his time, he took as a universal and unchanging datum from which social institutions, as well as social behaviour, could be deduced.

One question in particular interested Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. This was a problem that had attracted Smith’s teacher Hutcheson and a number of Scottish philosophers before him. The question was the source of the ability to form moral judgements, including judgements on one’s own behaviour, in the face of the seemingly overriding passions for self-preservation and self-interest. Smith’s answer, at considerable length, is the presence within each of us of an “inner man” who plays the role of the “impartial spectator”, approving or condemning our own and others’ actions with a voice impossible to disregard. (The theory may sound less naive if the question is reformulated to ask how instinctual drives are socialized through the superego.)

The thesis of the impartial spectator, however, conceals a more important aspect of the book. Smith saw humans as created by their ability to reason and - no less important - by their capacity for sympathy. This duality serves both to pit individuals against one another and to provide them with the rational and moral faculties to create institutions by which the internecine struggle can be mitigated and even turned to the common good. He wrote in his Moral Sentiments the famous observation that he was to repeat later in The Wealth of Nations: that self-seeking men are often “led by an invisible hand... without knowing it , without intending it, to advance the interest of the society.”

It should be noted that scholars have long debated whether Moral Sentiments complemented or was in conflict with The Wealth of Nations, which followed it. At one level there is a seeming clash between the theme of social morality contained in the first and largely amoral explanation of the manner in which individuals are socialized to become the market-oriented and class-bound actors that set the economic system into motion.

Travels on the Continent

The Theory quickly brought Smith wide esteem and in particular attracted the attention of Charles Townshend, himself something of an amateur economist, a considerable wit, and somewhat less of a statesman, whose fate it was to be the chancellor of the exchequer responsible for the measures of taxation that ultimately provoked the American Revolution. Townshend had recently married and was searching for a tutor for his stepson and ward, the young Duke of Buccleuch. Influenced by the strong recommendations of Hume and his own admiration for The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he Approached Smith to take the Charge.

The terms of employment were lucrative (an annual salary of £300 plus travelling expenses and a pension of £300 a year after), considerably more than Smith had earned as a professor. Accordingly, Smith resigned his Glasgow post in 1763 and set off for France the next year as the tutor of the young duke. They stayed mainly in Toulouse, where Smith began working on a book (eventually to be The Wealth of Nations) as an antidote to the excruciating boredom of the provinces. After 18 months of ennui he was rewarded with a two-month sojourn in Geneva, where he met Voltaire, for whom he had the profoundest respect, thence to Paris where Hume, then secretary to the British embassy, introduced Smith to the great literary salons of the French Enlightenment. There he met a group of social reformers and theorists headed by Francois Quesnay, who are known in history as the physiocrats. There is some controversy as to the precise degree of influence the physiocrats exerted on Smith, but it is known that he thought sufficiently well of Quesnay to have considered dedicating The Wealth of Nations to him, had not the French economist died before publication.

The stay in Paris was cut short by a shocking event. The younger brother of the Duke of Buccleuch , who had joined them in Toulouse, took ill and perished despite Smith’s frantic ministration. Smith and his charge immediately returned to London. Smith worked in London until the spring of 1767 with Lord Townshend, a period during which he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and broadened still further his intellectual circle to include Edmund Burke, Samuel Johnson, Edward Gibbon, and perhaps Benjamin Franklin. Late that year he returned to Kirkcaldy, where the next six years were spent dictating and reworking The Wealth of Nations, followed by another stay of three years in London, where the work was finally completed and published in 1776.

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