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Adam Smith

Life and Writings

Adam Smith was born in the small town of Kirkaldy in Scotland in 1723. His father had died shortly before he was born, and Adam was raised by his mother with the help of relatives - a moderately well-to-do family of landowners - until 1737, when he moved to Glasgow in order to attend the local university.

At the time, fourteen was not an uncommon age to enter university, which was in fact a sort of upper secondary school. In the Scottish educational system the students paid their teachers course by course, and so the teachers’ total salary depended on their students’ assessment of their teaching. Smith deemed this system superior to that of the English universities such as Oxford, financed by public funds and private donations, where the professors, receiving a regular salary, had no incentive to put zeal into their profession.

It was in fact at Oxford that Smith continued his studies as from 1740, with an eleven-year scholarship awarded as preparation for an ecclesiastical career. Smith did not take to the celebrated English university, traditionalist and authoritarian as it was. For instance, the young Adam was punished when caught reading the Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40) by David Hume, an exponent of a vague theism and who would later become one of Smith’s best friends. Thus, Smith dropped the idea of embracing an ecclesiastical career and in 1746 returned to Kirkaldy, where he spent two years studying on his own and writing some essays on literary and philosophical subjects. From 1748 to 1751, Smith held public lectures in Edinburgh on rhetoric and English literature, with some success in terms of audience and finance. In 1751 Smith became a professor at Glasgow University, first holding the chair of logic (but his lessons were essentially on rhetoric, like his Edinburgh lectures) and subsequently the moral philosophy chair, involving lectures on natural theology, ethics, jurisprudence, politics and political economy.

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From those years we have the notes on a course of lessons on rhetoric, taken by a student in 1762-1763 (Smith 1983), and the notes of two courses on ‘jurisprudence’ (taken in 1762-1763 and in 1763-1764: Smith 1978). Already, evidently, before becoming acquainted with the French physiocrats, the author had the main themes that would weave together into the Wealth of Nations clear in his mind. In the same period Smith wrote and published The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), which met with wide success.

Among the readers of the book was the stepfather to the young Duke of Buccleuch, who invited Smith to act as tutor to the young nobleman, accompanying him on a tour on the continent in exchange for a nice life annuity. Smith accepted and resigned from his chair at Glasgow. Scotland had at the time a fair cultural life, but the real centre of intellectual life was Paris. Smith met Voltaire in Geneva, and in Paris he met D’Alembert, Quesnay and many others.

Back in his native Kirkaldy, between 1767 and 1773 Smith dedicated himself to composition of the Wealth of Nations. In 1773 he moved to London to follow the printing of his book, which arrived in the bookshops on 9 March 1776, meeting with a warm reception.

In 1778, consulted on the American situation, Smith wrote a memorandum in which he argued the case for adopting a uniform system of taxation for Great Britain, Ireland and the American colonies, accompanied by the election of representatives of these latter populations to Parliament (on the basis of the principle commonly summarised in the motto ‘no taxation without representation’). Furthermore, Smith foresaw the loss of the American colonies (with the exception of Canada) and the gradual shift of the economic and political barycentre from England to America.[1] In the same year of 1778 Smith was appointed commissioner of customs for Scotland; he thus moved to Edinburgh, where he remained until his death on 17 July 1790. Complying with his instructions, the executors of his will destroyed sixteen volumes of manuscripts.

  • [1] Smith had long been a friend of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), one of the protagonistsof the independence of the United States. Like other intellectuals of the time, Smithdeclared opposition to the slave trade.
 
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