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Adam Smith | Biography


Early Life

Despite his monumental importance within his field, relatively little is known of Adam Smith's personal life. He was born on June 5, 1723, in Kirkcaldy, a village on the eastern coast of Scotland. Raised by his mother Margaret, he received his early education at the Burgh School, then enrolled in the prestigious University of Glasgow at age 14—not an uncommon age to begin university studies in those times. He graduated in 1740 and spent a further three years as a student at Balliol College, Oxford in England. Upon his return to Scotland in 1748, Smith established himself as a public lecturer in the capital city of Edinburgh. His talks covered a variety of subjects but emphasized the social sciences, suggesting, to some degree, the trajectory of Smith's future career.

Professional Life

In 1751 the University of Glasgow hired Smith as a professor of logic, largely on the strength of his popular lectures. A year later, he became professor of moral philosophy, which, at the time, encompassed economics as well as ethics. Overall, the 1750s were a busy and productive time for Smith, who evidently enjoyed teaching. He went on to become the university's dean of faculty in 1758. His landmark written work of the period was The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), a philosophical study that attempts to identify the origins of moral behavior and ethical judgments. Capitalizing on the success of this book, Smith left Glasgow in 1763 to serve as the tutor of the Duke of Buccleuch, a gainful post that left him with ample writing time. With his student, Smith voyaged to France, where he had the opportunity to meet the physiocrats, a group of French economists whose views are given a chapter in The Wealth of Nations. This book—Smith's most famous work by far—emerged from notes taken during his three years of travel in France and Switzerland.

Later Life and The Wealth of Nations

Smith returned to London in 1766 after the sudden death of the duke's brother. Although he continued for a time as adviser to the duke's stepfather, who was Britain's leading finance minister, Smith spent most of the ensuing decade preparing The Wealth of Nations for publication. When it appeared in 1776 the work was highly acclaimed by Smith's fellow philosophers and social scientists, but its popular reputation as a masterpiece would take decades to develop. In 1778 Smith took a position in Edinburgh as a high-ranking customs official—a somewhat peculiar choice since much of The Wealth of Nations is devoted to critiquing overzealous restrictions on trade. He returned to the University of Glasgow in 1787, serving as the university's rector, or head, until 1789. Smith died in Edinburgh on July 17, 1790, having lived long enough to see his theories take root in the economic thought of the younger generation. The realization of his ideas in British policy, however, would not truly begin until the 19th century, when an increasingly industrialized Great Britain gradually rejected mercantilism.

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