Sunday, June 5, 2016

Today in History

Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
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Today in 1723, Adam Smith was christened in Kirkcaldy, Scotland. His actual date of birth is unknown, and since Scotland was still using the Julian calendar (they would switch to Gregorian in 1752), by our calendar the christening was actually on June 16. Nonetheless many cite today as his birthdate.

Adam Smith was raised by his widowed mother, Margaret Douglas, his father passing away only two months after his birth. Fortunately their family had wealth, so Adam received a good education at a Scottish secondary school, then attended the University of Glasgow where he studied moral philosophy under Frances Hutcheson, father of the Scottish Enlightenment. It was here that Smith began his life-long interest in the nature of liberty and reason.

Glasgow University awarded Smith the Snell Exhibition, a scholarship for post-graduate studies at Oxford (Balliol College). Smith was unhappy at and with Oxford. He found the teaching inferior to that of Glasgow, "In the University of Oxford, the greater part of the public professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching." (Wealth of Nations)

He also found Oxford narrow-minded, and complained that officials had confiscated his copy of David Hume's Treatise on Human Nature and punished him for reading it. Smith took solace in Oxford's Bodleian library, which at this time was going through a wonderful period of growth and acquisition. Even this retreat could not mitigate the effects of Oxford, and he started to get shaking fits, possibly a symptom of a nervous breakdown,a nd Smith left Oxford before his scholarship ended.

Smith returned to Scotland and became the protege of Lord Kames, another prominent figure of the Scottish Enlightenment who was also the patron of David Hume (with whom Smith was to become a close and lifelong friend). He began to give lectures, and later started teaching at his alma mater, the University of Glasgow, where he was soon made head of Moral Philosophy.

In 1759, Smith published The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which encapsulated his Glasgow lectures and deals with how people learn to make moral choices. It provides the ethical and methological basis for his later work, but is an important and interesting book in its own right. It is a groundbreaking approach to psychology and the question of how man develops a conscience. The book was so popular that students from other countries began enrolling at Glasgow for the chance to attend Smith's lectures.

After publishing Moral Sentiments, Smith started to focus more on jurisprudence and economics. He received a Doctor of Laws (LLD) from the University in 1762, and the next year accepted an offer to tutor the step-son of Charles Townsend (British nobility, President of the Board of Trade and future Chancellor of the Exchequer). The step-son was the Scottish noble Henry Scott, the young Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, who was around 17 at the time. Tutoring involved travel to the Continent, where he met many intellectuals and thinkers (including Benjamin Franklin). Most influential on Scott was François Quesnay, head of the Physiocratic school, whose motto was "Let do and let pass, the world goes on by itself!" (Laissez faire et laissez passer, le monde va de lui même!)

In 1766 Henry Scott's younger brother died, and Smith returned to Kirkcaldy to continue writing. Ten years later, in 1766, he published An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, which today is considered the fundamental work in classical economics.

Smith appeared to be planning to publish two more works, on the theory and history of law and on science and arts. But he had almost all his manuscripts destroyed shortly before his death. He died of illness on July 17, 1790.

P.S. Ironically, John Maynard Keynes, whom one may think of as an anti-Smith, with his belief in government spending, was also born today (1883). But that's a post for another day, and possibly another blog.

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