ADAM SMITH (June 16th, 1723 – July 17th, 1790)
Scottish economist and philosopher.
- Writer of two revolutionary books, Theory of Moral Sentiments and An Inquiry Into The Nature And Causes Of The Wealth Of Nations, the latter of which is considered the definitive text of free-market capitalism, and it coined the phrase “the invisible hand of the market.”
- Contemporary and correspondent of David Hume, Benjamin Franklin, and François Quesnay, among others.
- Primary influence on the formation of Western capitalism and early inspiration of such figures as Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes.
Born in Scotland to the widowed Margaret Douglas, most of Adam Smith’s early childhood has been lost to history. At the age of fourteen, he was sent to the University of Glasgow to study moral philosophy. Glasgow at the time was the center of the “Scottish Revolution,” an 18th-century intellectual movement in which Smith would later become a major contributor. He graduated from Glasgow in 1740 and immediately made for Oxford, where he met with opposition for his support of David Hume’s supposedly “atheistic” philosophy.
Facing increasing trouble at Oxford, Smith returned home to Edinburgh, where he began a series of public lectures in 1748 that brought him to Hume’s attention two years later. Smith’s idol soon became his lifelong friend, and owing to Hume’s support Smith was appointed as a professor of logic at the University of Glasgow, though he switched to moral philosophy a year later.
In 1759, Smith published the first of his two major texts, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Sentiments’ main purpose was to examine man’s moral duty critically and build upon the ideas espoused by Hume and Smith’s own teacher, Frances Hutchison. The text was majorly successful and established Smith as an international celebrity in the world of philosophy. In addition to being a substantial work in its own right, Sentiments is an essential read, as it establishes many of the moral ideas that would motivate both Smith and those who would follow him in the years to come.
Riding the fame that came with Sentiments’ success, Smith obtained a high-paying position as the private tutor of the young Duke of Buccleuch, Henry Scott. He resigned from his position at Glasgow and set off on a trip to France, during which time he met François Quesnay among many other prominent French economic theorists, and was inducted into London’s Royal Society. The journey came to an end when Scott’s younger brother died in Paris, leaving Smith free to return home to Kirkcaldy.
The next ten years of Smith’s life were spent quietly working on his second and final major work: An Inquiry Into The Nature And Causes Of The Wealth Of Nations, published in 1776. Unlike Sentiments, which dealt primarily with abstract moral philosophy, Wealth of Nations was a laborious economic tome that delved into the question of what made a country prosperous. Like Sentiments, on the other hand, Nations was a tremendous success in the Western world, and it came to be considered Smith’s finest work.
Throughout the last few decades of his life, Smith lived with his mother, to whom he had always been close. He never took advantage of his fame after the Wealth of Nations’ publication. Instead, he lived quietly in Scotland, working on private treatises. Sadly, these remain lost to time, as Smith had them burned shortly after his death. He died in 1790 after a painful illness, the specifics of which remain unknown. His library was transferred to his housemate, the Lord of Reston, having never married and lacking any children.