10 Facts About Pioneering Economist Adam Smith | History Hit

10 Facts About Pioneering Economist Adam Smith

Chris Smith

27 Oct 2021
'The Muir Portrait' of Adam Smith, one of many drawn from memory.
Image Credit: The Scottish National Gallery

Adam Smith’s 1776 work An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations is regarded as one of the most influential books ever written.

Its foundational ideas of free markets, division of labour and gross domestic product provided the basis for modern economic theory, leading many to consider Smith the ‘Father of Modern Economics’.

A central figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, Smith was also a social philosopher and academic.

Here are 10 facts about Adam Smith.

1. Smith was a moral philosopher as well as an economic theorist

Both Smith’s major works, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and The Wealth of Nations (1776), are concerned with self-interest and self-governance.

In Moral Sentiments, Smith examined how natural instincts can be rationalised through “mutual sympathy” to create moral judgements. In The Wealth of Nations, Smith explored how free-market economies lead to self-regulation and the advancing of society’s wider interest.

‘The Muir Portrait’ of Adam Smith, one of many drawn from memory. Unknown artist.

Image Credit: The Scottish National Gallery

2. Smith had two more books planned when he died

At the time of his death in 1790, Smith was working on a book on the history of law, as well as another on the sciences and the arts. It has been suggested that completion of these works would have achieved Smith’s ultimate ambition: to present an extensive analysis of society and its many facets.

Although some later work was posthumously published, Smith ordered anything unsuitable for publication to be destroyed, potentially denying the world yet more of his profound influence.

3. Smith entered university aged 14

In 1737, aged 14, Smith enrolled at Glasgow University, then a central institution in the prevailing humanist and rationalist movement which later became known as the Scottish Enlightenment. Smith cites the lively discussions led by Professor of Moral Philosophy, Francis Hutcheson, as having a profound effect on his passion for liberty, free speech and reason.

In 1740, Smith was the recipient of the Snell Exhibition, an annual scholarship allowing Glasgow University students the opportunity to take up postgraduate study at Balliol College, Oxford.

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4. Smith did not enjoy his time at Oxford University

Smith’s experiences at Glasgow and Oxford were completely different. While Hutcheson had prepared his students for vigorous debate through challenging new and old ideas, at Oxford, Smith believed “the greater part of the public professors [had] given up altogether even the pretence of teaching”.

Smith was also punished for reading A Treatise of Human Nature by his later friend David Hume. Smith quit Oxford before his scholarship ended and returned to Scotland.

Adam Smith statue in Edinburgh’s High Street in front of St. Giles High Kirk.

Image Credit: Kim Traynor

6. Smith was a voracious reader

One of the main reasons Smith was dissatisfied with his experience of Oxford was how much of his development occurred alone. However, this helped form a useful habit of extensive reading which Smith maintained throughout his life.

His personal library consisted of approximately 1500 books on varied subjects while Smith was also developed a strong understanding of philology. This underpinned his outstanding grasp of grammar across multiple languages.

7. Students travelled from abroad to be taught by Smith

Smith landed a public lecturing job at the University of Edinburgh in 1748. It was well-received and led to a professorship at Glasgow University two years later. When Professor of Moral Philosophy, Thomas Craigie, died in 1752, Smith took over the position, beginning a 13-year academic period he defined as his “most useful” and also his “happiest and most honourable period”.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments was published in 1759 and was so well-received that many wealthy students left foreign universities, some as far afield as Russia, to come to Glasgow and learn under Smith.

8. Smith didn’t like to discuss his ideas socially

Despite his extensive history of public speaking, Smith said very little in general conversation, particularly about his own work.

This is according to a former Glasgow University student of his, and fellow member of the Literary Club, James Boswell, who stated that Smith was reluctant to disclose ideas from his books through concern over limiting sales and for fear of misrepresenting his literary work. Boswell said that Smith vowed never to speak about matters that he understood.

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9. Smith started writing The Wealth of Nations out of boredom

Smith began writing The Wealth of Nations “to pass away the time” in France during the 1774-75 period when he was hired by Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Townshend, to tutor his stepson, the Duke of Buccleuch.

Smith accepted Townshend’s lucrative offer of around £300 per year plus expenses, and a £300 pension a year, but found little intellectual stimulation in Toulouse and the nearby provinces. His experience improved significantly, however, when he was taken to Geneva to meet Voltaire, and to Paris where he was introduced to François Quesnay’s economic school of Physiocrats, who impressed him greatly.

10. Smith was the first Scotsman commemorated on an English banknote

Given Smith’s seminal influence in the world of economics, an acknowledgement in the form of his face on a banknote seems entirely appropriate.

Sure enough, this happened twice, first in his native Scotland on £50 notes issued by Clydesdale Bank in 1981, and secondly in 2007 when the Bank of England commemorated him on £20 notes. On the latter occasion, Smith became the first Scotsman to be featured on an English banknote.

A commemorative plaque at Panmure House where Adam Smith lived from 1778 to 1790.

10. Smith disliked having his portrait painted

Smith disliked having his portrait painted and very rarely sat down for one . “I am a beau in nothing but my books”, he is reported to have said to a friend.

For this reason, nearly all portraits of Smith are drawn from memory while only one genuine portrayal survives, a profile medallion by James Tassie showing Smith as an older man.

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Chris Smith