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Adam Smith Biography And Visits

Fife Folk Museum

Adam Smith was born in Kirkaldy, a seaport on the Firth of Forth, in 1723. His exact birth date is unknown, but he was baptised on 5th of June. His father, who died before Adam was born was a customs officer. The Fife Folk Museum in the seventeenth century weigh house at Ceres near Cupar, and the Fisheries Museum in Anstruther give a picture of the seafaring industries and rural crafts around which life revolved in Kirkaldy as Adam Smith grew up. These years were spent being educated by tutors provided for in his father's will. He had a traditional classical education, and thrived on it. Beyond his studies, even at this early age, observations were being made that would inform later work. Smith had first hand experience of the vagaries of limits that governments place on trade. Smugglers were the enemy for the customs officer community, but Smith felt sympathy for these men, who under different rules would be prosperous merchants instead of criminals.


Young Adam did well in his studies, and went on to Glasgow University in 1737. Glasgow was to be a formative influence on Adam Smith. In the eighteenth century Glasgow was considered one of the most beautiful cities in Britain. Founded as an ecclesiastical centre in the sixth century, Glasgow began to thrive in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, through its market, and through its trading links with Ireland, the American colonies and with Europe. Mindful of the way a pleasing appearance was good for trade, town development was conducted sensibly. In the 1720s King Street was built as attractive trading accommodation. Along it were built covered markets, where business could be done out of the weather in a supervised way. Trade encouraged teaching of science and maths at Glasgow University, at a time when Oxford and Cambridge felt they were above such things. Arriving in the 1730s Smith saw all this, and not surprisingly was impressed with the benefits of trade. In fact he came to see seabourne trade as the basis for civilisation itself. In Wealth of Nations he was to write:

"The nations that, according to the best authenticated history, appear to have been first civilised, were those that dwelt round the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. That sea, by far the greatest inlet that is known in the world, having no tides, nor consequently any waves except such as are caused by wind only, was, by the smoothness of its surface, as well by the multitude of its islands, and the proximity of its neighbouring shores, extremely favourable to the infant navigation of the world." (Bk 1, Ch 3, P124)

Glasgow prosperous and attractive, seemed a lesson in how the world should be run. It should be remembered, however, that Smith was in Glasgow before the Industrial Revolution really gained momentum. By the nineteenth century Glasgow would be looking different, and obviously if Smith had seen this development his views would probably have been altered. He was a humane man who wrote powerfully of instances of oppression. Ronald Meek used to inform his students that Karl Marx "became a communist in the 1840s through dwelling on those passages in Wealth of Nations which drew attention to the workers being exploited and oppressed by deceitful traders and manufacturers and indolent landlords." (The Life of Adam Smith by Ian Simpson Ross P417) Nevertheless during his lifetime Smith saw a Glasgow made beautiful and vibrant by free trade, so it is not surprising he thought it was a good thing.


Broad Street Oxford, just outside Balliol College

Smith spent his student years at the Old College of Glasgow, built between 1632 and 1661 on the High Street. He studied Classics, and unusually for the time, also immersed himself in contemporary scientific writing. When Smith moved on to Balliol College Oxford in 1740, the contrast between indolent Oxford and vibrant Glasgow, confirmed the value of free trade in his mind. The earnest, and extremely hardworking young man, noted that the dons at Oxford were assured of their income, regardless of whether they did any teaching or not. Most barely did anything at all. In Wealth of Nations Oxford is described as one of those learned societies which "have chosen to remain, for a very long time, the sanctuaries in which exploded systems and obsolete prejudices found shelter and protection, after they had been hunted out of every other corner of the world." (Bk5 Ch1) Smith was not impressed, and became even more convinced of the importance of competition and free trade.


In 1746 Adam Smith left Oxford and went to live in Edinburgh, working as a lecturer at the university. He taught history, and pioneered the study of English Literature. Sometimes Smith has been accused of betraying Scottish culture through the stress in his teaching on English and English authors. It was not in the spirit of trying to impose a cultural monopoly that Smith taught English. In the words of Ian Simpson Ross: "Smith's aim was that of the Enlightenment: to create a cosmopolitan culture, fed from the classics and the modern languages and literatures of Europe, and from what could be learned from the cultures, including aboriginal ones, of other continents." (The Life Of Adam Smith P94) Smith wanted to reach out to the wider world. Scotland would not be prosperous by being Scotland, but by being Scotland as part of a wider world. Smith was equally free thinking in the way he continued his interest in science, when most classical scholars of his time ignored scientific subjects. In 1748 he studied solar and lunar eclipses, and went on to write History of Astronomy. In later years Smith was to be a fellow of the scientific institution, the Royal Society.

The reward for all this work in Edinburgh was a prestigious teaching job back at Glasgow University. The thirteen years spent teaching in Glasgow from 1751 Smith considered the happiest of his life. He began to form his opinions on economics, and worked on a study of morals and conceptions of justice, called Theory of Moral Sentiment, published in 1758, . Then after a few years travelling in Europe in the mid 1760s as a tutor to the Duke of Buccleugh, Smith returned to Kirkaldy and set to work on his most famous work Wealth of Nations which was finally published in the same year that America declared independence, 1776. The publication of Wealth of Nations and American independence were closely linked. The creation of a world market, which American independence made possible, was in Smith's view to have huge benefits. The bigger the market, the more opportunity there was for division of labour. Using examples from the pin making business, Wealth of Nations opens by describing a blacksmith working in a small village. This blacksmith might only be able to make twenty pins a day, and for a small village that might be enough. If the whole of America is your market, then twenty pins is not enough, and the encouragement is there for the process of pin making to be broken down into its constituent parts, each worker becoming an expert in their own little part of the process. In this way productivity and quality increase massively. We are told of the author's experience of a pin factory where ten men working together, dividing the work between them can produce a staggering 48,000 pins a day. Accepting a world market, and leaving it free to trade gives these benefits of mass production.

Smith foresaw some of the problems that this new world might encounter. He worried, the example, of the effect of monotonous work on people, and suggested wider educational opportunities as a remedy. Nevertheless his view was basically one of optimism. The market would find its own justice. People work best when they are happy, and happy workers would make more profit. In the years to come there were many who disagreed, including Karl Marx. Different circumstances would give different views. But Smith's book was the definitive reaction to the new world that was opening up in the late eighteenth century. It was a world that was in many ways breaking up, politically and spiritually. But these divisions would bring a new unity of prosperous trade. It is a vision with much to recommend it. Peace, easy taxes and happiness. That's what Adam Smith wanted.


Panmure House

After retiring in 1778, Adam Smith bought Panmure House in Edinburgh, which still stands on the Canongate. He returned to his father's old trade, taking a position in the customs house in Edinburgh. Here his ideals rubbed up against the realities of the world. As a customs officer he was obliged to maintain the trade barriers that he was so suspicious of in his writing.

Smith's final years were spent in Panmure House, continuing to revise A Theory of Moral Sentiment and Wealth of Nations. It was here that he died on the 17th of July 1790.

Panmure House is now privately owned but can be easily viewed from either Panmure Close, or neighbouring Lochend Close. Walk up Canongate from Holyrood House, and after about a hundred yards, you will find both closes on the right.









©2008InfoBritain (updated 01/10)