Biography of Adam Smith

Adam Smith was born on June 5th, 1723, in Kirkcaldy, a trading center in Scotland. Smith's birthplace gave him exposure to a number of trades, including fishing, mining, iron-working, and trade. Smith also witnessed the growing popularity of foreign commodities imported from the colonies, such as tobacco and cotton, giving him further material for thought.

Smith did well at school and won a scholarship in 1740 to study at the Balliol College of Oxford. He had many criticisms of the school, some of which he addresses in The Wealth of Nations -- for instance, he discusses how incentives must be created for teachers by their students. Oxford professors were paid not by student fees, but from a large endowment, and Smith perceived a disconnect between the content of their lessons and their teaching style and the needs of their students.

Smith began his intellectual career in 1748, when he gave a series of public lectures at the University of Edinburgh in English and the philosophy of law. These lectures primarily treated matters of opulence, belles-lettres, and rhetoric. In 1751, he assumed a post at the University of Glasgow, as a professor of logic. It was this lecturing that provided the basis for much of Smith's later work.

In 1759, Smith was hired as a tutor for the son of a wealthy statesman, and, with his pupil, began extensive travels of Europe. He met with David Hume in Paris, and went on to visit the South of France and Geneva. He used these opportunities to reflect on the interaction of culture, government, commerce, and economics, and to analyze various policy approaches and their effectiveness. Smith returned to London in 1766.

After educating his pupil, Smith retired to Kirkcaldy, the city of his birth, where he began his work on The Wealth of Nations, which he devoted himself to even at the expense of his health. During a long stay in London from 1773 to 1776, Smith enjoyed the company of a host of other great thinkers, including Edmund Burke, Boswell, and Sir Joshua Reynolds. Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776, which was translated into many languages shortly after its publication. Though the anti-mercantilism manifesto was met with generally positive sentiment, British Parliament and the British public resisted free trade -- it was not nationally adopted until 1906, over a century after Smith's original treatise.

Smith was appointed to be the Commissioner of Customs in 1778, at which time he returned to Edinburgh to live with his mother. This position endowed Smith with real political power and placed him in a position to put many of his ideas into action. He also became an important voice on other issues, including trade restrictions on Ireland. It was in 1790, during his time as Commissioner, that Smith passed away in his home after he grew exhausted during a particularly lively discussion with his intellectual circle of friends and acquaintances.

Study Guides on Works by Adam Smith

The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, is a careful, thorough, and brilliant criticism of the mercantile system that governed economic policy in Great Britain during Smith's life. Smith charts the evolution of mercantile principles from the...