Smith was born to Margaret Douglas at Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland. His father, also named Adam Smith, was a lawyer, civil servant, and widower who married Margaret Douglas in 1720 and died two months after Smith was born. Although the exact date of Smith’s birth is unknown, his baptism was recorded on 5 June 1723 at Kirkcaldy. Though few events in Smith’s early childhood are known, Scottish journalist and Smith’s biographer John Rae recorded that Smith was abducted by gypsies at the age of four and released when others went to rescue him.[N 1] Smith was close to his mother, who likely encouraged him to pursue his scholarly ambitions. He attended the Burgh School of Kirkcaldy—characterised by Rae as “one of the best secondary schools of Scotland at that period”—from 1729 to 1737. While there, Smith studied Latin, mathematics, history, and writing.
A commemorative plaque for Smith is located in Smith’s home town of Kirkcaldy.
Smith entered the University of Glasgow when he was fourteen and studied moral philosophy under Francis Hutcheson. Here, Smith developed his passion for liberty, reason, and free speech. In 1740, Smith was awarded the Snell exhibition and left to attend Balliol College, Oxford.
Smith considered the teaching at Glasgow far superior to that at Oxford, which he found intellectually stifling. In Book V, Chapter II of The Wealth of Nations, Smith wrote: “In the University of Oxford, the greater part of the public professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching.” Smith is also reported to have complained to friends that Oxford officials once discovered him reading a copy of David Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature, and they subsequently confiscated his book and punished him severely for reading it. According to William Robert Scott, “The Oxford of [Smith's] time gave little if any help towards what was to be his lifework.” Nevertheless, Smith took the opportunity while at Oxford to teach himself several subjects by reading many books from the shelves of the large Oxford library. When Smith was not studying on his own, his time at Oxford was not a happy one, according to his letters. Near the end of his time at Oxford, Smith began suffering from shaking fits, probably the symptoms of a nervous breakdown. He left Oxford University in 1746, before his scholarship ended.
In Book V of The Wealth of Nations, Smith comments on the low quality of instruction and the meager intellectual activity at English universities, when compared to their Scottish counterparts. He attributes this both to the rich endowments of the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, which made the income of professors independent of their ability to attract students, and to the fact that distinguished men of letters could make an even more comfortable living as ministers of the Church of England.
Smith’s discontent at Oxford might be in part due to the absence of his beloved teacher in Glasgow, Francis Hutcheson. Hutcheson was well regarded as one of the most prominent lecturers at the University of Glasgow in his day and earned the approbation of students, colleagues, and even ordinary residents with the fervor and earnestness of his orations (which he sometimes opened to the public). His lectures endeavored not merely to teach philosophy but to make his students embody that philosophy in their lives, appropriately acquiring the epithet, the preacher of philosophy. Unlike Smith, Hutcheson was not a system builder; rather it was his magnetic personality and method of lecturing that so influenced his students and caused the greatest of those to reverentially refer to him as “the never to be forgotten Hutcheson”––a title that Smith in all his correspondence used to describe only two people, his good friend David Hume and influential mentor Francis Hutcheson.
Smith began delivering public lectures in 1748 in University of Edinburgh, sponsored by the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh under the patronage of Lord Kames. His lecture topics included rhetoric and belles-lettres, and later the subject of “the progress of opulence”. On this latter topic he first expounded his economic philosophy of “the obvious and simple system of natural liberty“. While Smith was not adept at public speaking, his lectures met with success.
David Hume was a friend and contemporary of Smith.
In 1750, he met the philosopher David Hume, who was his senior by more than a decade. In their writings covering history, politics, philosophy, economics, and religion, Smith and Hume shared closer intellectual and personal bonds than with other important figures of the Scottish Enlightenment.
In 1751, Smith earned a professorship at Glasgow University teaching logic courses, and in 1752 Smith was elected a member of the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh, having been introduced to the society by Lord Kames. When the head of Moral Philosophy died the next year, Smith took over the position. He worked as an academic for the next thirteen years, which he characterized as “by far the most useful and therefore by far the happiest and most honorable period [of his life]“.
Smith published The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759, embodying some of his Glasgow lectures. This work was concerned with how human morality depends on sympathy between agent and spectator, or the individual and other members of society. Smith defined “sympathy” as the feeling of moral sentiments. He bases his explanation not on a special “moral sense”, as the third Lord Shaftesbury and Hutcheson had done, nor on utility as Hume did, but on sympathy. Following the publication of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith became so popular that many wealthy students left their schools in other countries to enroll at Glasgow to learn under Smith. After the publication of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith began to give more attention to jurisprudence and economics in his lectures and less to his theories of morals. For example, Smith lectured that the cause of increase in national wealth is labor, rather than the nation’s quantity of gold or silver, which is the basis for mercantilism, the economic theory that dominated Western European economic policies at the time.
François Quesnay, one of the leaders of the Physiocratic school of thought
In 1762, the University of Glasgow conferred on Smith the title of Doctor of Laws (LL.D.). At the end of 1763, he obtained an offer from Charles Townshend—who had been introduced to Smith by David Hume—to tutor his stepson, Henry Scott, the young Duke of Buccleuch. Smith then resigned from his professorship to take the tutoring position, and he subsequently attempted to return the fees he had collected from his students because he resigned in the middle of the term, but his students refused.
Tutoring and travels
Smith’s tutoring job entailed touring Europe with Scott, during which time he educated Scott on a variety of subjects – such as proper Polish. He was paid £300 per year (plus expenses) along with a £300 per year pension; roughly twice his former income as a teacher. Smith first travelled as a tutor to Toulouse, France, where he stayed for one and a half years. According to his own account, he found Toulouse to be somewhat boring, having written to Hume that he “had begun to write a book to pass away the time”. After touring the south of France, the group moved to Geneva, where Smith met with the philosopher Voltaire.
From Geneva, the party moved to Paris. Here Smith came to know several great intellectual leaders of the time; invariably having an effect on his future works. This list included: Benjamin Franklin, Turgot, Jean D’Alembert, André Morellet, Helvétius and, notably, François Quesnay; head of the Physiocratic school. So impressed with his ideas Smith considered dedicating The Wealth of Nations to him – had Quesnay not died beforehand. Physiocrats were opposed to mercantilism, the dominating economic theory of the time. Illustrated in their motto Laissez faire et laissez passer, le monde va de lui même! (Let do and let pass, the world goes on by itself!). They were also known to have declared that only agricultural activity produced real wealth; merchants and industrialists (manufacturers) did not. This however, did not represent their true school of thought, but was a mere ‘smoke screen’ manufactured to hide their actual criticisms of the nobility and church; arguing that they made up the only real clients of merchants and manufacturers. The wealth of France was virtually destroyed by Louis XIV and Louis XV to ruinous wars, by aiding the American insurgents against the British, and perhaps most destructive (in terms of public perceptions) was what was seen as the excessive consumption of goods and services deemed to have no economic contribution – unproductive labour. Assuming that nobility and church are essentially detractors from economic growth, the feudal system of agriculture in France was the only sector important to maintain the wealth of the nation. Given that the English economy of the day yielded an income distribution that stood in contrast to that which existed in France, Smith concluded that the teachings and beliefs of Physiocrats were, “with all [their] imperfections [perhaps], the nearest approximation to the truth that has yet been published upon the subject of political economy”. The distinction between productive versus unproductive labour – the physiocratic classe steril – was a predominant issue in the development and understanding of what would become classical economic theory.
In 1766, Henry Scott’s younger brother died in Paris, and Smith’s tour as a tutor ended shortly thereafter. Smith returned home that year to Kirkcaldy, and he devoted much of the next ten years to his magnum opus. There he befriended Henry Moyes, a young blind man who showed precocious aptitude. As well as teaching Moyes, Smith secured the patronage of David Hume and Thomas Reid in the young man’s education. In May 1773, Smith was elected fellow of the Royal Society of London, and was elected a member of the Literary Club in 1775. The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776 and was an instant success, selling out its first edition in only six months.
In 1778, Smith was appointed to a post as commissioner of customs in Scotland and went to live with his mother in Panmure House in Edinburgh’s Canongate. Five years later, as a member of the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh when it received its royal charter, he automatically became one of the founding members of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and from 1787 to 1789 he occupied the honorary position of Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow. He died in the northern wing of Panmure House in Edinburgh on 17 July 1790 after a painful illness and was buried in the Canongate Kirkyard. On his death bed, Smith expressed disappointment that he had not achieved more.
Smith’s literary executors were two friends from the Scottish academic world: the physicist and chemist Joseph Black, and the pioneering geologist James Hutton. Smith left behind many notes and some unpublished material, but gave instructions to destroy anything that was not fit for publication. He mentioned an early unpublished History of Astronomy as probably suitable, and it duly appeared in 1795, along with other material such as Essays on Philosophical Subjects.
Smith’s library went by his will to David Douglas, Lord Reston (son of his cousin Colonel Robert Douglas of Strathendry, Fife), who lived with Smith. It was eventually divided between his two surviving children, Cecilia Margaret (Mrs. Cunningham) and David Anne (Mrs. Bannerman). On the death of her husband, the Rev. W. B. Cunningham of Prestonpans in 1878, Mrs. Cunningham sold some of the books. The remainder passed to her son, Professor Robert Oliver Cunningham of Queen’s College, Belfast, who presented a part to the library of Queen’s College. After his death the remaining books were sold. On the death of Mrs. Bannerman in 1879 her portion of the library went intact to the New College (of the Free Church), Edinburgh.
Personality and beliefs
James Tassie‘s enamel paste medallion of Smith provided the model for many engravings and portraits that remain today.
Not much is known about Smith’s personal views beyond what can be deduced from his published articles. His personal papers were destroyed after his death at his request. He never married, and seems to have maintained a close relationship with his mother, with whom he lived after his return from France and who died six years before his own death.
Smith, who is often described as a prototypical absent-minded professor, is considered by historians to have been an eccentric but benevolent intellectual, comically absent-minded, with peculiar habits of speech and gait, and a smile of “inexpressible benignity”. He was known to talk to himself, a habit that began during his childhood when he would speak to himself and smile in rapt conversation with invisible companions. He also had occasional spells of imaginary illness, and he is reported to have had books and papers placed in tall stacks in his study.
Various anecdotes have discussed his absent-minded nature. In one story, Smith took Charles Townshend on a tour of a tanning factory, and while discussing free trade, Smith walked into a huge tanning pit from which he needed help to escape. Another episode records that he put bread and butter into a teapot, drank the concoction, and declared it to be the worst cup of tea he ever had. In another example, Smith went out walking and daydreaming in his nightgown and ended up 15 miles (24 km) outside town before nearby church bells brought him back to reality.
James Boswell who was a student of Smith’s at Glasgow University, and later knew him at the Literary Club, says that Smith thought that speaking about his ideas in conversation might reduce the sale of his books, and so his conversation was unimpressive. According to Boswell, he once told Sir Joshua Reynolds that ‘he made it a rule when in company never to talk of what he understood’.
Portrait of Smith by John Kay, 1790
Smith, who is reported to have been an odd-looking fellow, has been described as someone who “had a large nose, bulging eyes, a protruding lower lip, a nervous twitch, and a speech impediment”. Smith is said to have acknowledged his looks at one point, saying, “I am a beau in nothing but my books.” Smith rarely sat for portraits, so almost all depictions of him created during his lifetime were drawn from memory. The best-known portraits of Smith are the profile by James Tassie and two etchings by John Kay. The line engravings produced for the covers of 19th century reprints of The Wealth of Nations were based largely on Tassie’s medallion.
There has been considerable scholarly debate about the nature of Smith’s religious views. Smith’s father had shown a strong interest in Christianity and belonged to the moderate wing of the Church of Scotland. The fact that Adam Smith received the Snell Exhibition suggests that he may have gone to Oxford with the intention of pursuing a career in the Church of England. It is generally believed that at Oxford Smith rejected Christianity, returning to Scotland a deist.
The Theory of Moral Sentiments
Main article: The Theory of Moral Sentiments
In 1759, Smith published his first work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He continued making extensive revisions to the book, up until his death.[N 2] Although The Wealth of Nations is widely regarded as Smith’s most influential work, it is believed that Smith himself considered The Theory of Moral Sentiments to be a superior work.
In the work, Smith critically examines the moral thinking of his time, and suggests that conscience arises from social relationships. His goal in writing the work was to explain the source of mankind’s ability to form moral judgements, in spite of man’s natural inclinations towards self-interest. Smith proposes a theory of sympathy, in which the act of observing others makes people aware of themselves and the morality of their own behavior.
Scholars have traditionally perceived a conflict between The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations; the former emphasizes sympathy for others, while the latter focuses on the role of self-interest. In recent years, however, some scholars of Smith’s work have argued that no contradiction exists. They claim that in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith develops a theory of psychology in which individuals seek the approval of the “impartial spectator” as a result of a natural desire to have outside observers sympathize with them. Rather than viewing The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments as presenting incompatible views of human nature, some Smith scholars regard the works as emphasizing different aspects of human nature that vary depending on the situation.
These views ignore that Smith’s visit to France (1764–66) changed radically his former views and that The Wealth of Nations is an inhomogeneous convolute of his former lectures and of what Quesnay taught him. Before his voyage to France in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith refers to an “invisible hand” (“By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, [an individual] intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other eases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.“)  which ensures that the gluttony of the rich helps the poor, as the stomachs of rich are so limited that they have to spend their fortune on servants. After his visit to France, Smith considers in the Wealth of Nations (1776) the gluttony of the rich as unproductive labour. The micro-economical/psychological view in the tradition of Aristotle, Puffendorf and Hutcheson, Smith’s teacher, – elements compatible with a neoclassical theory – changed to the macro-economical view of the classical theory Smith learned in France.[clarification needed]
The Wealth of Nations
Main article: The Wealth of Nations
Later building on the site where Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations
There is a fundamental dissent between classical and neoclassical economists about the central message of Smith’s most influential work: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Neoclassical economists emphasise Smith’s invisible hand, a concept mentioned in the middle of his work – book IV, chapter II – and classical economists believe that Smith stated his programme how to promote the “Wealth of Nations” in the first sentences.
Smith used the term “the invisible hand” in “History of Astronomy” referring to “the invisible hand of Jupiter” and twice – each time with a different meaning – the term “an invisible hand“: in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and in The Wealth of Nations (1776). This last statement about “an invisible hand” has been interpreted as “the invisible hand” in numerous ways. It is therefore important to read the original:
As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other eases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. [emphasis added].
Those who regard that statement as Smith’s central message also quote frequently Smith’s dictum:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.
The first page of The Wealth of Nations, 1776 London edition
Smith’s statement about the benefits of “an invisible hand” is certainly meant to answer Mandeville’s contention that “Private Vices … may be turned into Public Benefits”. It shows Smith’s belief that when an individual pursues his self-interest, he indirectly promotes the good of society. Self-interested competition in the free market, he argued, would tend to benefit society as a whole by keeping prices low, while still building in an incentive for a wide variety of goods and services. Nevertheless, he was wary of businessmen and warned of their “conspiracy against the public or in some other contrivance to raise prices.” Again and again, Smith warned of the collusive nature of business interests, which may form cabals or monopolies, fixing the highest price “which can be squeezed out of the buyers”. Smith also warned that a true laissez-faire economy would quickly become a conspiracy of businesses and industry against consumers, with the former scheming to influence politics and legislation. Smith states that the interest of manufacturers and merchants “…in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public…The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order, ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention.”
The neoclassical interest in Smith’s statement about “an invisible hand” originates in the possibility to see it as a precursor of neoclassical economics and its General Equilibrium concept. Samuelson’s “Economics” refers 6 times to Smith’s “invisible hand”. To emphasize this relation, Samuelson quotes Smith’s “invisible hand” statement putting “general interest” where Smith wrote “publick interest”. Samuelson concluded: “Smith was unable to prove the essence of his invisible-hand doctrine. Indeed, until the 1940s no one knew how to prove, even to state properly, the kernel of truth in this proposition about perfectly competitive market.” And it was then when neoclassical economics was revived in Chicago from oblivion and Samuelson entered the scene.
Very differently, classical economists see in Smith’s first sentences his programme to promote “The Wealth of Nations”. Taking up the physiocratical concept of the economy as a circular process means that to have growth the inputs of period2 must excel the inputs of period1. Therefore the outputs of period1 not used or usable as input of period2 are regarded as unproductive labour as they do not contribute to growth. This is what Smith had learned in France with Quesnay. To this French insight that unproductive labour should be pushed back to use more labor productively, Smith added his own proposal, that productive labor should be made even more productive by deepening the division of labor. Deepening the division of labor means under competition lower prices and thereby extended markets. Extended markets and increased production lead to a new step of reorganising production and inventing new ways of producing which again lower prices, etc., etc.. Smith’s central message is therefore that under dynamic competition a growth machine secures “The Wealth of Nations”. It predicted England’s evolution as the workshop of the World, underselling all its competitors. The opening sentences of the “Wealth of Nations” summarize this policy:
The annual labor of every nation is the fund which originally supplies it with all the necessaries and conveniences of life which it annually consumes … . [T]his produce … bears a greater or smaller proportion to the number of those who are to consume it … .[B]ut this proportion must in every nation be regulated by two different circumstances;
first, by the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which its labor is generally applied; and,
secondly, by the proportion between the number of those who are employed in useful labour, and that of those who are not so employed [emphasis added].
Criticism and Dissent
Prominent interpretation, as well as criticism, of Smith’s views on the societal merits of unregulated labor management by the ruling class is expressed by Noam Chomsky as follows: “He’s pre-capitalist, a figure of the Enlightenment. What we would call capitalism he despised. People read snippets of Adam Smith, the few phrases they teach in school. Everybody reads the first paragraph of The Wealth of Nations where he talks about how wonderful the division of labor is. But not many people get to the point hundreds of pages later, where he says that division of labor will destroy human beings and turn people into creatures as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to be. And therefore in any civilized society the government is going to have to take some measures to prevent division of labor from proceeding to its limits.”
Smith’s burial place in Canongate Kirkyard
Shortly before his death, Smith had nearly all his manuscripts destroyed. In his last years, he seemed to have been planning two major treatises, one on the theory and history of law and one on the sciences and arts. The posthumously published Essays on Philosophical Subjects, a history of astronomy down to Smith’s own era, plus some thoughts on ancient physics and metaphysics, probably contain parts of what would have been the latter treatise. Lectures on Jurisprudence were notes taken from Smith’s early lectures, plus an early draft of The Wealth of Nations, published as part of the 1976 Glasgow Edition of the works and correspondence of Smith. Other works, including some published posthumously, include Lectures on Justice, Police, Revenue, and Arms (1763) (first published in 1896); and Essays on Philosophical Subjects (1795).
In economics and moral philosophy
The Wealth of Nations was a precursor to the modern academic discipline of economics. In this and other works, Smith expounded how rational self-interest and competition can lead to economic prosperity. Smith was controversial in his own day and his general approach and writing style were often satirized by Tory writers in the moralizing tradition of Hogarth and Swift, as a discussion at the University of Winchester suggests. In 2005, The Wealth of Nations was named among the 100 Best Scottish Books of all time. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, it is said, used to carry a copy of the book in her handbag.
George Stigler attributes to Smith “the most important substantive proposition in all of economics.” It is that, under competition, owners of resources (for example labor, land, and capital) will use them most profitably, resulting in an equal rate of return in equilibrium for all uses, adjusted for apparent differences arising from such factors as training, trust, hardship, and unemployment.
Paul Samuelson finds in Smith’s pluralist use of supply and demand as applied to wages, rents, profit a valid and valuable anticipation of the general equilibrium modeling of Walras a century later. Smith’s allowance for wage increases in the short and intermediate term from capital accumulation and invention added a realism missed later by Malthus, Ricardo, and Marx in their propounding a rigid subsistence-wage theory of labour supply.
On the other hand, Joseph Schumpeter dismissed Smith’s contributions as unoriginal, saying “His very limitation made for success. Had he been more brilliant, he would not have been taken so seriously. Had he dug more deeply, had he unearthed more recondite truth, had he used more difficult and ingenious methods, he would not have been understood. But he had no such ambitions; in fact he disliked whatever went beyond plain common sense. He never moved above the heads of even the dullest readers. He led them on gently, encouraging them by trivialities and homely observations, making them feel comfortable all along.”
Classical economists presented competing theories of those of Smith, termed the “labour theory of value“. Later Marxian economics descending from classical economics also use Smith’s labour theories, in part. The first volume of Karl Marx‘s major work, Capital, was published in German in 1867. In it, Marx focused on the labour theory of value and what he considered to be the exploitation of labour by capital. The labour theory of value held that the value of a thing was determined by the labor that went into its production. This contrasts with the modern understanding of mainstream economics, that the value of a thing is determined by what one is willing to give up to obtain the thing.
The Adam Smith Theatre in Kirkcaldy
The body of theory later termed “neoclassical economics” or “marginalism” formed from about 1870 to 1910. The term “economics” was popularized by such neoclassical economists as Alfred Marshall as a concise synonym for “economic science” and a substitute for the earlier, broader term “political economy” used by Smith. This corresponded to the influence on the subject of mathematical methods used in the natural sciences. Neoclassical economics systematized supply and demand as joint determinants of price and quantity in market equilibrium, affecting both the allocation of output and the distribution of income. It dispensed with the labour theory of value of which Smith was most famously identified with in classical economics, in favour of a marginal utility theory of value on the demand side and a more general theory of costs on the supply side.
The bicentennial anniversary of the publication of The Wealth of Nations was celebrated in 1976, resulting in increased interest for The Theory of Moral Sentiments and his other works throughout academia. After 1976, Smith was more likely to be represented as the author of both The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and thereby as the founder of a moral philosophy and the science of economics. His homo economicus or “economic man” was also more often represented as a moral person. Additionally, economists David Levy and Sandra Peart in “The Secret History of the Dismal Science” point to his opposition hierarchy, beliefs in inequality, including racial inequality, and provide additional support for those who point to Smith’s opposition to slavery, colonialism, and empire. They show the caricatures of Smith drawn by the opponents of views on hierarchy and inequality in this online article.. Emphasized also are Smith’s statements of the need for high wages for the poor, and the efforts to keep wages low. In The “Van