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Adam Smith's Life, Part 2 to the Life & Works of
Adam Smith

On the Firth of Forth just across and to the north of Edinburgh, in County Fife, will be found a town, Kirkcaldy; it is here, in the year 1723, Adam Smith was born. Adam Smith was to become the first political economist the world had ever known. He was to take his place at the head of the first school of economics, one that continues and is known as the "classical school."

Adam's father, who had died before Adam's birth, was a "comptroller of customs." In 1740, at the age of seventeen, Smith was sent off to Oxford on scholarship. It is here that he learned Greek and began a "sound accumulation of Greek learning." It is here, too, that he read Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature, a work written during the years 1734-5. (David Hume, from Edinburgh, born twelve years before Smith, was another of those Scottish "lights" which were so prominent in this age.) At any rate Smith's interest in Hume's work brought him into conflict with the authorities at Oxford.2 On coming back home, Adam Smith joined in on "the brilliant circle in Edinburgh which included David Hume, John Home, Hugh Blair, Lord Hailes and Principal Robertson."3

In 1751, at age twenty-eight, Adam Smith became a professor of Logic at Glasgow, and then, the following year, took the Chair of Moral Philosophy. In 1759, he published his Theory of Moral Sentiments, a work that spread to both Germany and France, a work that he kept revising right up to his death in 1790.

One, not familiar with his life, might well consider it surprising to learn that Adam Smith wrote his "economics" as part of his work as a philosopher. One must appreciate that in the days of Adam Smith, much of the study carried out at universities was history and philosophy; a course in philosophy would include a study of jurisprudence. A study of justice leads naturally to a study of the various legal systems, which of course, in turn, leads to the study of government, and, finally, to a study of political economy.

Smith was a curious human being. He treasured his library, and was continually absorbed in abstractions; he was notoriously absent minded. Smith led a quiet and sheltered life; he lived with his mother (she lived to be ninety) and remained a bachelor all his life. His students loved him, and people came from far to take him in (Boswell was one).

Though silent and awkward in social situations, Adam Smith possessed, to near perfection, the peculiarly Scotch gift of abstract oratory. Even in common conversation, when once moved, he expounded his favourite ideas very admirably. As a teacher in public he did even better; he wrote almost nothing, and though at the beginning of a lecture he often hesitated, we are told, and seemed 'not to be sufficiently possessed of the subject,' yet in a minute or two he became fluent, and poured out an interesting series of animated arguments. Commonly, indeed, the silent man, whose brain is loaded with unexpressed ideas, is more likely to be a successful public speaker than the brilliant talker who daily exhausts himself in sharp sayings. The point is that Adam Smith acquired a great reputation as a lecturer.4

Smith discussed matters with his friend David Hume; and went to London, there to discuss his ideas with the literati of the day, one of whom was Samuel Johnson. He met the charming and intelligent American, Benjamin Franklin (1706-90). Franklin must have made quite an impression on Smith.

France had a special attraction for Scottish people, for it was to France they had turned during the course of the wars with those to the south of them, the hated English.5 In the 1760s Smith traveled to France and there met some of the "physocrats." It was in France that he met Voltaire; there, too, Adam Smith started to write his masterpiece, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, a work that was published in 1776.

For ten years, after returning from France, Smith "stayed quietly with his mother at his native town of Kirkcaldy ... He lived on the annuity from the Duke of Buccleugh, and occupied himself in study only."

In 1776, after the death of his illustrious friend, David Hume, Smith moved to London and clubed around with "Gibbon, Burke, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92), Dr. Johnson (with whom he was not on good terms), Boswell and Garrick."6 He met Benjamin Francklin, and, indeed, he read to him a draft of parts of The Wealth of Nations.7

Having been appointed, in 1778, as commissioner of customs for Edinburgh, Smith moved back to Scotland.

On July 17th, 1790, Adam Smith died at Edinburgh; he was buried in the Canongate churchyard.

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Peter Landry

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