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Who is Adam Smith?

By Donn Saylor
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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Adam Smith was an 18th century philosopher of political and economic thought. His trailblazing 1776 book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations—often referred to as simply The Wealth of Nations—is widely recognized as the first treatise on modern economics. Smith's work introduced the importance of self-interest in economic pursuits and the global connotations of laissez-faire economics, in which personal economic transactions do not require the intervention of the government.

Smith was born in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, where he was baptized on June 15, 1723 — the precise date of his birth in not known. Smith's father was a lawyer and died six months after his son's birth. Smith was raised by his mother, Margaret, with whom he maintained a close relationship for the rest of her life.

When he was 13 years old, Adam Smith became a student at the University of Glasgow, where he studied moral philosophy. From there he attended Balliol College in Oxford, England, an education he found second-rate compared to his education in Glasgow. He studied English literature at Oxford until health problems cut short his studies and he returned to Scotland. He soon became a professor at the University of Glasgow, where he taught logic and moral philosophy.

Smith's first work,The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which he based on his University of Glasgow lectures, was published in 1759. In this volume, he introduced his theory of political economics. He sought to elucidate the foundation for the human ability to form moral judgments and also initiated the idea that an "invisible hand" guides people to the optimal use of resources in any economy.

In 1764, Smith left his university career to become a private tutor to Henry Scott, the Duke of Buccleuch. The pair traveled extensively throughout Switzerland and France for two years before Smith retired back to Kirkcaldy, where he began writing The Wealth of Nations. This seminal work was published in 1776, and dissected the moral implications of free market economics. In this trailblazing manifesto, Smith expounded his "invisible hand" theory and deduced that following one's own self-interest was the key to economic success. "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest," Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations.

Adam Smith died on July 17, 1790, in Edinburgh. He never married, and at his own insistence, the manuscripts on which he had been working were destroyed. As he lay dying, Smith said he regretted that he had not accomplished more in his life. Today, however, Adam Smith is widely recognized as the father of modern economics.

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Discussion Comments

By anon330802 — On Apr 18, 2013

It's worth noting that while Smith is commonly referred to as trailblazer of modern economics, many of his "revolutionary" ideas were covered prior to his emergence (Turgot, Hutcheson, Cantillon) or even further back in history by the medieval scholastics. Also, much of what he wrote contradicted himself or was just plain wrong - see "labor theory of value".

By anon122015 — On Oct 26, 2010

learning about karl marx, Adam Smith, etc. had helped me a lot in history and civics classes. it is very interesting to learn about economic and political matters.

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