Born: Unknown; baptized June 5, 1723, in Kirkaldy, Scotland
Died: July 17, 1790, in Edinburgh, Scotland
Adam Smith's work dealt with themes of human relationships. He felt that value was found in work and human interaction, not in gold or land. Smith was one of the first to write and discuss the economic principles and problems that resulted from the rapid industrialization of England. He was strongly against government control of business.
At the age of four, Smith was kidnapped by gypsies and later abandoned when they could not ransom him. His early education took place in his home town, Kirkaldy. In 1737, he attended the University of Glasgow and studied moral philosophy. Here, he was heavily influenced by his professor, Francis Hutcheson. After university, his family sent him to Balliol College. He studied at Oxford for six years where he read philosophy and English history.
In 1748, he began a series of public lectures with the patronage of Lord Kames. The first lectures dealt with subjects such as literature and rhetoric. In these lectures, while still in his twenties, he first enunciated a theory of economic philosophy dealing with a system of natural liberty.
In 1750 he met David Hume, a skeptic who would become one of his close friends and influences. In 1751, Smith was appointed professor of logic and, later that year, the chair of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow. Among his students was James Boswell.
Smith published Moral Sentiments, which dealt with human nature, in 1759. The book showed how a person's capacity for sympathy could overcome self-interest. This was the first secular explanation for the natural identity of interests and it influenced Hazlitt's and Keats' theories on sympathetic imagination. The book also expressed many ideas that are still discussed today; for instance, the notion that wrongdoing is punished through the remorse of the guilty party. Smith was criticized by his peers for his interest in economics, which other professors felt was as far from logic and ethics as one could get.
From 1764 to 1766, he was appointed an aristocratic patronage, and became the personal tutor to the duke of Buccleuch. With his student, he traveled to France where he met Dr. Francois Quesnay. Quesnay was the founder of an influential political-economy school of thought that believed money came from the land and enervated society as long as it was unrestricted.
Between 1767 and 1776, Smith divided his time between Edinburgh and London and concentrated on the development and writing of The Wealth of Nations. He intended to show the wisdom of free trade among nations. The book covers a wide range of issues, including education, commerce, and taxation.
Smith believed in the individual and tempered the philosophy of free-enterprise with statements of justice. He advocated the division of labor, believing that a highly skilled worker was more productive than a generalist. He thought the human trait of self-interest, or self-love would protect the laborer from exploitation.
The central theme of The Wealth of the Nations is the notion of "laissez faire": the direction of a nation is best steered by private enterprise guided by loose ideals of justice. He also advocated that the rich should pay for the education of their children, but that the state should pay for those who could not. This book brought him fame and prestige. British Prime Minister, William Pitt, sought his opinion on many economic bills, but could not attempt free trade because of poor relations with neighboring countries.
In 1777, Smith received the job of commissioner of customs and salt duties, and went to live with his mother in Edinburgh. Shortly before his death in 1790, Smith destroyed many of his manuscripts and gave away much of his estate to secret charities.