A Brief Biography of Adam Smith

essay biographical

by James R. Otteson for AdamSmithWorks 
In the Beginning

Adam Smith was born in 1723 in Kirkcaldy, Scotland. Along with figures like his teacher Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746) and his friend David Hume (1711–76), Smith played an important part in a period of astonishing learning that became known as the Scottish Enlightenment. He published two books in his lifetime, the 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) and the 1776 Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (WN), as well as a few surviving essays on topics like the origins of human language, the history of astronomy and physics, and on the “imitative” arts. TMS went through six revised editions during Smith’s lifetime and brought him considerable acclaim. The book was soon considered one of the great works of moral theory—impressing, for example, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), who called Smith his “Liebling” or “favorite” among the British moralists, and Charles Darwin (1809–82), who in his 1871 Descent of Man endorsed and accepted several of Smith’s “striking” conclusions. Yet since the nineteenth century, Smith’s fame has largely rested on his second book, which, whether judged by its influence or its greatness, must be considered one of the most important works of the second millennium.

Not many details of Smith’s boyhood are known. He was born on the 5th of June and was an only child. His father, also named Adam Smith, died shortly before he was born. In his 1793 Account of the Life and Writings of Adam Smith, LL.D., Smith’s student Dugald Stewart reports that Smith’s “constitution during infancy was infirm and sickly, and required all the tender solicitude of his surviving parent. She was blamed for treating him with an unlimited indulgence; but it produced no unfavourable effects on his temper or his dispositions” (Essays on Philosophical Subjects, 269).

Perhaps one anecdote from Smith’s childhood bears repeating. Margaret, Smith’s mother, would regularly take him to Strathenry, about seven miles northwest of Kirkaldy, to visit her brother. On one visit, when Smith was but three years old, he was playing in front of his uncle’s house and was kidnapped by a passing group of “gypsies.” The alarm was raised and the kidnappers were discovered and overtaken in the nearby Leslie wood, whereupon the wailing toddler was safely returned to his mother. Stewart writes that Smith’s uncle, who recovered Smith, “was the happy instrument of preserving to the world a genius, which was destined, not only to extend the boundaries of science, but to enlighten and reform the commercial policy of Europe” (EPS, 270). In his 1895 Life of Adam Smith, John Rae notes dryly, “He would have made, I fear, a poor gipsy” (L, 5).

Smith enrolled at the University of Glasgow in 1737 at the age of fourteen. His instruction there, which focused heavily on the classics, Smith considered quite good. The influence of Hutcheson, to whom Smith later referred as “the never to be forgotten Dr Hutcheson” (C, 309), was pronounced. After Glasgow, Smith was elected as a Snell exhibitioner at Balliol College, Oxford. Smith was less impressed with the quality of instruction at Oxford, later writing, “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” (WN V.i.f.8). Nonetheless, Smith was able to make good use of the libraries at Oxford, studying widely in English, French, Greek, and Latin literature. He left Oxford and returned to Kirkcaldy in 1746.

In 1748, at the invitation of Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696–1782), Smith began giving “Lectures on Rhetoric and the Belles Lettres” in Edinburgh, focusing on literary criticism and the arts of speaking and writing well. It was during this time that Smith met and befriended David Hume, who became Smith’s closest confidant and greatest philosophical influence.

Smith left Edinburgh in 1751 to become Professor of Logic at the University of Glasgow at the age of twenty-eight and then Professor of Moral Philosophy in 1752 at the age of twenty-nine. The lectures he gave at Glasgow eventually crystallized into The Theory of Moral Sentiments, first published in 1759 when Smith was thirty-six years of age.

Smith’s First Book: The Theory of Moral Sentiments 

In TMS, Smith argues that human beings naturally desire a “mutual sympathy of sentiments” with their fellows, which means that they long to see their own judgments and sentiments echoed in others. Because we all seek out this “sympathy” (TMS I.i.2.1)—or “harmony” or “concord” of sentiments—much of social life is a give-and-take whereby people alternately try to moderate their own sentiments so that others can “enter into them” and try to arouse others’ sentiments so that they match their own. This process of mutual adjustment results in the gradual development of shared habits of judgment, supplemented in part by explicit rules,about matters ranging from etiquette to moral duty.

This process also gives rise, Smith argues, to an ultimate standard of moral judgment, the “impartial spectator,” whose imagined perspective we use to judge both our own and others’ conduct. When we use it to judge our own, it constitutes our conscience. We consult the impartial spectator simply by asking ourselves what a fully-informed but disinterested person would think about our conduct. If such a person would approve, then we may proceed; if he would disapprove, then we should desist.[1] If we heed the impartial spectator, then we feel a pleasurable satisfaction which reinforces our behavior; by contrast, if we disobey then we feel an unpleasant guilt, which provides a disincentive for that behavior.

Morality on Smith’s account is thus an earthly, grounded affair that arises from our experiences and interactions with others as we mutually seek sympathy of sentiments. Smith makes frequent reference in TMS to God and the “Author of Nature,” but scholars disagree about the extent to which Smith’s theory is dependent on the existence of a higher power that sets objective standards of right and wrong.

Interregnum: Between TMS and WN 

In 1763 Smith resigned his post at Glasgow to become the personal tutor of Henry Scott, the Third Duke of Buccleuch, whom Smith then accompanied on an eighteen-month tour of France and Switzerland. It was during these travels with the Duke that Smith met the French philosophe Voltaire (1694–1778), on whom Smith apparently made quite an impression. Voltaire later wrote, “This Smith is an excellent man! We have nothing to compare with him, and I am embarrassed for my dear compatriots” (Muller 1993: 15).

During these travels Smith also met François Quesnay (1694–1774), Jacques Turgot (1727–81), and others among the so-called French Physiocrats, who were arguing for a relaxation of trade barriers and generally laissez-faire economic policies. Although Smith had already been developing his own similar ideas, conversations with the Physiocrats no doubt helped him refine and sharpen them. In 1767, at the age of forty-three, Smith returned to Kirkcaldy to care for his ailing mother and to continue work on what would become his Wealth of Nations. During this time he was supported by a generous pension from the Duke of Buccleuch, enabling him to focus his scholarly work. It was known that the celebrated author of TMS was working furiously on a new book, and the ten years he labored on it raised expectations high indeed. Finally, at long last, Smith’s magnum opus was published March 9th, 1776.

The reactions to the publication of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations were swift and, among the principals of the Scottish Enlightenment, highly laudatory. Here is Hume’s reaction:

Euge! Belle! Dear Mr. Smith: I am much pleas’d with your Performance, and the Perusal of it has taken me from a State of great Anxiety. It was a Work of so much Expectation, by yourself, by your Friends, and by the Public, that I trembled for its Appearance; but am now much relieved. Not but that the Reading of it necessarily requires so much Attention, and the Public is disposed to give so little, that I shall still doubt for some time of its being very popular: But it has Depth and Solidity and Acuteness, and is so much illustrated by curious Facts, that it must at last take the public Attention. (C, 150)

And here is Hugh Blair (1718–1800), Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Edinburgh: “You have given me full and Compleat Satisfaction and my Faith is fixed. I do think the Age is highly indebted to you, and I wish they may be duly Sensible of the Obligation” (C, 151). William Robertson (1721–93), eminent historian and Principal of the University of Edinburgh, wrote: “You have formed into a regular and consistent system one of the most intricate and important parts of political science, and… I should think your Book will occasion a total change in several important articles in police and finance” (C, 153). And from Adam Ferguson (1723–1816), Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh and author of the 1767 Essay on the History of Civil Society: “You are surely to reign alone on these subjects, to form the opinions, and I hope to govern at least the coming generations” (C, 154). Somewhat later, Thomas Malthus (1766–1834), author of An Essay on the Principle of Population, went so far as to claim that Smith’s WN “has done for political economy, what the Principia of Newton did for physics” (1986: 257).

Smith’s Second Book: The Wealth of Nations 

In WN, Smith argues, against the school of economic thought called “Mercantilism,” that real wealth does not consist in pieces of metal (gold and silver, or money). It consists, rather, in the ability to satisfy one’s needs and desires. Since each person always wishes to ‘better his own condition’ (see, for example, WN II.iii.31), the argument of WN is that the policies and public institutions that best allow us to better our own conditions should be adopted. Hence the task of the political economist is to conduct empirical, historical investigations to discover what these policies and institutions are. His own investigation led Smith to argue that markets, in which the division of labor is allowed to progress, in which trade is free, and in which taxes and regulations are light, are the best policies and institutions to achieve this.

Smith argues that in market-oriented economies based on private property, each person working to better his own condition will increase the supply, and thus lower the price, of whatever good he is producing. This means that others will be in a better position to afford his goods. Thus each person serving his own ends is, in Smith’s famous phrase, “led by an invisible hand” (WN IV.ii.9) simultaneously to serve others’ ends as well. He does this by providing more plentiful goods and services, and both in a greater variety, and by lowering prices. The market, Smith believed, could harness people’s industry in the service of their own ends and make it serve everyone else’s welfare, even if the welfare of others was not part of the individuals’ motivations.

Smith did not believe, however, that everyone is fundamentally selfish in any narrow sense. In opposition to Bernard Mandeville (1670–1733), whose 1714 Fable of the Bees Smith called “licentious,” Smith argued that people’s “self-interest” in fact includes the interests of others, in particular their family and friends, and even their country or countrymen. Nevertheless, Smith did believe that natural benevolence is limited and that, whatever other motivations people feel, their desire to better their own condition is always present. Thus “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” (WN I.ii.2). The genius of the Smithian market mechanism was that it could coordinate the disparate individual efforts of an indefinite number of people and create an overall benefit for the good of society.

The conclusions of WN are therefore largely in favor of limiting political interference in markets. Each individual knows his own situation—including his goals and desires, as well as the opportunities available to him—better than anyone else does. Hence Smith argues that individuals should be allowed to decide how best to apply and sell their labor or goods, with whom to exchange and on what terms, and so on. Individuals certainly know their situation better than any distant legislator. Smith is withering in his condemnation of meddling legislators who overestimate their ability to direct the lives of others and who legislatively substitute their own, distant judgment for that of individuals with actual, local knowledge, and who then use the predictable failures of their imposed decisions as excuses for yet more imprudent intervention.

Yet Smith is equally condemnatory of grasping merchants and businessmen who seek legal protections of their industries or prices. “People of the same trade seldom meet together,” Smith writes, “even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the publick, or in some contrivance to raise prices” (WN I.x.c.27). Such merchants proclaim that trade barriers, tariffs, subsidies, monopolies, and other legal protections are for the good of the country, but Smith exposes these claims as special pleading. Legal protections for an industry work to increase those particular merchants’ profits at the expense not only of their competitors but also of the public at large. Keeping prices up and limiting competition certainly benefit the favored businessmen, but such policies just as certainly impose artificial costs on everyone else. Smith argues that the way to deal with such cronyism is typically not to attempt to regulate or manage it after the fact, but rather to disallow legal privileges in the first place. Markets and open competition are, Smith thinks, better providers of social benefit than regulation by politically motivated legislators. Legislators are, after all, often compensated handsomely by the very merchants and businesses from whom they profess to protect the public.

But Smith is no anti-government anarchist, nor even a modern-day libertarian. He argues that the first and central duty of the government is to secure “justice,” which, for him, means protecting people’s lives, property, and voluntary promises and contracts (TMS II.ii.2.2). This will entail a system of police and courts, which Smith argues must be effective and efficient if the market system is going to be able to work. In addition to those basic duties, Smith also argues that the government should provide, out of general taxation, for those goods and services that would be for everyone’s benefit but that would not repay any private entrepreneurs who provide them (WN IV.ix.51). In this category he suggests the building of roads, canals, and other public infrastructures. He also recommends partially state-subsidized primary schooling, in the belief that everyone should learn to “read, write, and account” (WN V.i.f.54).

But Smith’s concerns for the common man go far deeper. Indeed, perhaps Smith’s central concern is those at the low end of the economic scale. This concern is especially pronounced in book 5 of the Wealth of Nations, where Smith worried about the deleterious effects on workers’ minds that the progressing division of labor would have. “The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations,” he writes, “of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become” (WN V.i.f.50). Although markets and division of labor provide great material benefits, Smith also believed they can deaden the mind and weaken the character. Nationally subsidized schooling might help, but it is not clear that Smith thought this would be enough. Indeed, some recent commentators have suggested that Smith’s deep concern for the poor and working portions of society in fact make him a precursor to modern “progressive” liberalism rather than an icon of classical laissez-faire liberalism.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, WN was regularly cited in British parliament—in debates about its Corn Laws, for example—and WN’s recommendations of free markets and free trade went on to have great influence in the subsequent political and economic developments not only of Britain, but also of most of the Western and even parts of the Eastern world. Smith’s influence on the founding of the United States in particular was pronounced. Among his readers were Benjamin Franklin (1706–90), George Washington (1732–99), Thomas Paine (1737–1809), and Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826). When compiling “a course of reading” in 1799, Jefferson included WN along with John Locke’s 1690 Second Treatise of Government and Condorcet’s 1793 Esquisse d’un tableau des progrès de l’esprit humain as the essential books (Rothschild 2001: 4).

After The Wealth of Nations 

Smith remained in Kirkcaldy until 1778, when he became Commissioner of Customs in Edinburgh. Smith’s mother died in 1784, when Smith was aged sixty-one. Smith had spent much of this time caring for his mother, which might be part of the explanation for the fact that he never married or had children. Although he apparently did have a love interest during his adult life, it did not result in marriage. Dugald Stewart writes, “In the early part of Mr Smith’s life it is well known that he was for several years attached to a young lady of great beauty and accomplishment. How far his addresses were favourably received, or what the circumstances were which prevented their union, I have not been able to learn; but I believe it is pretty certain that, after this disappointment, he laid aside all thoughts of marriage. The lady to whom I allude died also unmarried” (EPS, 349–50).

During the decade or so that he spent in Kirkcaldy, and then thereafter when he was in Edinburgh, Smith spent a great deal of time visiting with and entertaining friends, among whom he counted Irish philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke (1729–97), the chemist Joseph Black (1728–99), the geologist James Hutton (1726–97), Prime Minister Frederick (Lord) North (1732–92), and Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger (1759–1806). He also took active roles in learned organizations like the Oyster Club, the Poker Club, and the Select Society, the last of which included among its members William Robertson, David Hume, James Burnett Lord Monboddo (1714–99), Adam Ferguson, and Lord Kames. In 1783, Smith was a founding member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, which still exists today as Scotland’s premier national academy of science and letters. Having previously served as the University of Glasgow’s Dean of Arts (1760) and Vice-Rector (1761–63), in 1787 he was elected Lord Rector of the university, a post he held until 1789.

During his years in Edinburgh, Smith extensively revised both TMS and WN for new editions. He reported to Le Duc de La Rochefoucauld in 1785 that during this time “I [Smith] have likewise two other great works upon the anvil; the one is a sort of Philosophical History of all the different branches of Literature, of Philosophy, Poetry and Eloquence; the other is a sort of theory and History of Law and Government” (C, 248). Neither of these projects was ever published. In the days before he died, Smith summoned Black and Hutton to his quarters and asked that they burn his unpublished manuscripts, a request they had resisted on previous occasions. This time Smith insisted. They reluctantly complied, destroying sixteen volumes of manuscripts. It is probable that Smith’s philosophical history of literature, philosophy, poetry, and eloquence and his theory and history of law and government were among the works that perished in that tragic loss.

Adam Smith died in Edinburgh on 17 July 1790 at the age of 67 and is buried in the Canongate cemetery off High Street in Edinburgh.

[1]Throughout both of Smith’s two books, he uses masculine pronouns. In light of that, and not to beg any questions, I adopt a similar convention.