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Adam Smith 300: The giant of economics with his heart in Glasgow

We’re celebrating a milestone in 2023 as we mark the 300th anniversary of the birth of one of our most eminent alumni – political economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith (LLD 1762), known to many as the father of modern economics.

Best known for his two classic works, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which breaks ground in the field of moral psychology, and the pioneering An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (usually referred to as simply The Wealth of Nations), Smith was a pivotal figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, a period of exponential progress for intellectual and scientific achievements.

“His achievements are in his writings,” says Dr Craig Smith, Adam Smith Senior Lecturer in the Scottish Enlightenment at Glasgow. “For somebody to produce a great contribution to one field of human learning is a great thing, but to do it in two areas – moral psychology and economics – is really quite remarkable.”

Adam Smith’s connection with the University was profound and lasted throughout his life. He progressed from being a young scholar, to returning as a highly respected lecturer, and was eventually appointed to the position of Rector. Smith is remembered prominently on campus to this day, from his name on our Memorial Gate, to the Adam Smith Chair in Political Economy, as well as our triple-accredited Adam Smith Business School, which will soon move to a new £86 million home on our Western campus.

Early life

Born in 1723 in Kirkcaldy, Fife, his exact date of birth is unknown, but is often given as 5 June, when his baptism took place. Smith’s father died before he was born and as an only child, he always remained close to his widowed mother, sharing a home, valuing her opinion and outliving her by only six years.

Smith the scholar 

Smith became a student at the University at the tender age of 14, entering directly into second year due to his exceptional Latin skills. He studied logic, metaphysics, maths, Newtonian physics and moral philosophy – a fairly standard set of subjects at the time – and was noted for “his studious disposition, his love of reading and his power of memory.”

"By far the most useful and therefore as by far the happiest and most honourable period of my life.” Adam Smith, remembering his years at the University

Smith the educator 

After a spell in Oxford, Smith returned to Scotland and took up the position of Chair of Logic and Metaphysics at the University in 1751, collecting an annual salary of £33 (around £4,000 today). He was remembered as an amenable and sometimes quirky personality during his years at Glasgow. “He was very sociable,” says Dr Smith, “though he was sometimes described as being a little bit absent-minded in company. He had this kind of aura where he seemed to always be in profound thought.”

Smith the economist

Smith held views that were innovative for the time on enterprise, competition and international trade. He rejected the idea of a country’s wealth being held in stocks of gold and silver and was one of the first to point to self-interest as a natural source of industry and productivity, despite this having previously been criticised as selfish.

"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 interest.”
Adam Smith, from The Wealth of Nations

He was sceptical of the ability of government to direct industry and put more faith in the good sense of the individual. And unlike many of his contemporaries, Smith was openly opposed to slavery, writing at length about the suffering of enslaved people. “Smith has been influential in not only economic thought, but philosophical thought,” says UofG Principal and Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli. “He was a really sophisticated thinker, as comes across in The Wealth of Nations; he manages to weave together many ideas around ethics, philosophy and economics.”

Dr Craig Smith, Adam Smith Senior Lecturer in the Scottish Enlightenment, talks about Smith the man, his works and influence.

Dr Craig Smith, Adam Smith Senior Lecturer in the Scottish Enlightenment, talks about Smith the man, his works and influence.

An impact through the centuries

So what do today’s business students think? How can a figure who lived three centuries ago be relevant in today’s society? “Smith was writing at the beginning of the first industrial revolution, and even his vast intellect would have found it impossible to conceive of the technological advancements and globalisation that have been achieved over the past 250 years,” says Caroline Howitt, Programme Director at Panmure House in Edinburgh, which was Smith’s final home and is now a hub for the promotion of social and economic debate and research. “Today, at the dawn of the fourth industrial revolution, we enjoy far more wealth, literacy, and opportunity than ever before, and we can trace a direct line of influence between this and Smith’s social and economic insights. In a time of real geopolitical instability, rising inequality and global economic turmoil, the only things that are going to solve these problems are the open-minded enquiry, reasoned debate and multidisciplinary collaboration that characterised Smith and the Scottish Enlightenment.

At the University’s Adam Smith Business School (ASBS), Smith continues to inspire dialogue and debate: “A lot of the observations that he makes in his books are of interest to people working in areas like experimental economics, evolutionary psychology and neuroscience,” says Craig Smith. “So his ideas are coming back in, being tested and found relevant.” The majority of students matriculating at ASBS today were drawn to studying at the school due to its association with Smith and say they feel inspired by his life and work. “He was revolutionary,” says a current ASBS student, “the most important economic mind in history. He is the reason the world is the way it is.”

This article was first published January 2023. This is the first in the series of Adam Smith 300 features that will appear in Avenue throughout 2023.

Adam Smith born in Kirkcaldy in late May or early June. He spent his childhood in the town, which was already booming economically due to its pottery and linen-weaving industries.

Smith began his studies at the University, aged 14, and was heavily influenced by Professor Francis Hutcheson, one of the founding fathers of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Smith gave a series of well-received public lectures in Edinburgh with themes such as 'the progress of opulence' and 'the obvious and simple system of natural liberty'.

Smith was appointed Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at the University, transferring to a professorship of moral philosophy the following year. 

Publication of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which developed the principles and concepts explored in Smith's lectures.

As tutor to the young Duke of Buccleuch, Smith spent time travelling in Europe.

Smith moved to London and the first edition of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations was published.

Smith held the post of Rector of the University.

Smith died at Panmure House in Edinburgh. He was working on two unfinished histories at the time of his death and instructed that they be destroyed, after expressing regret that he had not achieved more in his life.